Brave Pianist: Maria Yudina

Maria Yudina

by Jim Forest

Armando Iannucci’s recent film, The Death of Stalin, briefly filled the two Moscow cinemas where it was being shown, but then was abruptly banned. The movie was described as an “unfriendly act by the British intellectual class” by Nikolai Starikov, head of the Russian Great Fatherland Party, and as part of a “Western plot to destabilize Russia by causing rifts in society,” by the head of the Public Council of the Russian Ministry of Culture.

In fact the film provides, in the form of a Dr. Strangelove-sort of black comedy, a remarkably accurate portrait of the end of Stalin’s ruthless reign and the subsequent battle for leadership among those in his inner circle. Though only Stalin looks like his historical self, the casting is superb. My only disappointment was the portrayal of the great Russian pianist, Maria Veniaminovna Yudina.

In the film she is young and glamorous and, though despising Stalin, willing to make a special recording for him in exchange for a bribe of thousands of rubles.

The actual Yudina was very different. I have come to know her indirectly through the memoirs of her friend and one-time classmate, the composer Dmitri Shostakovich, as related by Solomon Volkov in his book, Testimony, and also through Tatiana Voogd, a founder of our Russian Orthodox parish in Amsterdam, who knew Yudina personally and even slept under her piano — “the most sheltered place in her apartment,” she told me.

Born to a Jewish family in 1899, Maria Yudina converted to the Orthodox faith at the age of 20. It was her fate to live through the Bolshevik Revolution (she was 18 at the time) and its aftermath, seeing many of her dearest friends and colleagues disappear into the Gulag. Fearlessly, even recklessly, she wore a cross even while teaching or performing in public—an affirmation of belief at a time when any display of religious faith could cost one’s work, one’s freedom, even one’s life. In contrast to the on-screen portrayal, she lived an ascetic life, wearing no makeup, spending little on herself, and dressing simply. “I had the impression,” said Shostakovich, “that Yudina wore the same black dress during her entire long life, it was so worn and soiled.”

For her, music was a way of proclaiming her faith in a period when printing presses were more stringently policed than pianos. “Yudina saw music in a mystical light. For instance she saw Bach’s Goldberg Variations as a series of illustrations to the Holy Bible,” said Shostakovich. “She always played as though she were giving a sermon.”

Maria Yudina

She would not only perform piano works but sometimes pause during concerts to read poetry by such writers as Boris Pasternak, himself unable to publish at the time. (Pasternak did the first reading of his novel Doctor Zhivago at Yudina’s apartment in 1947.)

Yudina was notorious among friends for her inability to keep anything of value for herself. Shostakovich recalled:

She came to see me once and said that she was living in a miserable little room where she could neither work nor rest. So I signed a petition, I went to see various bureaucrats, I asked a lot of people to help, I took up a lot of people’s time. With great difficulty we got an apartment for Yudina. You would think that everything was fine and that life could go on. A short time later she came to me again and asked for help in obtaining an apartment for herself. “What? But we got an apartment for you. What do you need another one for?” “I gave the apartment away to a poor old woman.”

Shostakovich heard from a friend that he had made a loan to Yudina of five rubles:

“I broke a window in my room, it’s drafty and so cold, I can’t live like that,” she had told them. Naturally, they gave her the money—it was winter. A while later they visited her, and it was as cold in her room as it was outside and the broken window was stuffed with a rag. “How can this be, Maria Veniaminovna? We gave you money to fix the window.” And she replied, “I gave it for the needs of the church.”

Shostakovich, who regarded religion as superstition, didn’t approve. “The church may have various needs,” he protested, “but the clergy doesn’t sit around in the cold, after all, with broken windows. Self-denial should have a rational limit.” He accused her of behaving like a yurodivye, the Russian word for a holy fool, a special category of sanctity.

Her public profession of faith was not without cost. Despite her genius as a musician, from time to time she was banned from concert halls, and not once in her life was she allowed to travel outside Russia. Shostakovich remembered:

Her religious position was under constant artillery and even cavalry attack [at the music school in Leningrad]. Serebriakov, the director then, had a habit of making so-called “raids of the light brigade”…. He realized that Yudina was a first-class pianist, but he wasn’t willing to risk his own position. One of the charges of the light brigade was made specifically against her. The cavalry rushed into Yudina’s class and demanded of Yudina: “Do you believe in God?” She replied in the affirmative. “Was she promoting religious propaganda among her students?” She replied that the Constitution didn’t forbid it. A few days later a transcript of the conversation made by “an unknown person” appeared in a Leningrad paper, which also printed a caricature—Yudina in nun’s robes surrounded by kneeling students. And the caption was something about preachers appearing at the Conservatoire. The cavalry trod heavily, even though it was the light brigade. Naturally, Yudina was dismissed after that.

From time to time she all but signed her own death warrant. Perhaps the most remarkable story in Shostakovich’s memoir concerns one such incident, dramatized inaccurately in the film:

In his final years, Stalin seemed more and more like a madman, and I think his superstition grew. The “Leader and Teacher” sat locked up in one of his many dachas, amusing himself in bizarre ways. They say he cut out pictures and photos from old magazines and newspapers, glued them onto paper, and hung them on the walls…. [He] didn’t let anyone in to see him for days at a time. He listened to the radio a lot. Once Stalin called the Radio Committee … and asked if they had a record of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, which had been heard on the radio the day before. “Played by Yudina,” he added. They told Stalin that of course they had it. Actually, there was no record, the concert had been live. But they were afraid to say no to Stalin, no one ever knew what the consequences might be. A human life meant nothing to him. All you could do was agree, submit, be a yes-man, a yes-man to a madman.

Yudina later told me that they had to send the conductor home, he was so scared he couldn’t think. They called another conductor, who trembled and got everything mixed up, confusing the orchestra. Only a third conductor was in any shape to finish the recording.

I think this is a unique event in the history of recording—I mean, changing conductors three times in one night. Anyway, the record was ready by morning. They made one single copy in record time and sent it to Stalin. Now that was a record. A record in yes-ing.

Soon after, Yudina received an envelope with twenty thousand rubles. She was told it came on the express orders of Stalin. Then she wrote him a letter. I know about this letter from her, and I know that the story seems improbable. Yudina had many quirks, but I can say this—she never lied. I’m certain that her story is true. Yudina wrote something like this in her letter: “I thank you, Joseph Vissarionovich, for your aid. I will pray for you day and night and ask the Lord to forgive your great sins before the people and the country. The Lord is merciful and He will forgive you. I gave the money to the church that I attend.”

And Yudina sent this suicidal letter to Stalin. He read it and didn’t say a word. They expected at least a twitch of the eyebrow. Naturally, the order to arrest Yudina was prepared and the slightest grimace would have been enough to wipe away the last traces of her. But Stalin was silent and set the letter aside in silence. The anticipated movement of the eyebrows didn’t come.

Nothing happened to Yudina. They say that her recording of the Mozart was on the record player when the “Leader and Teacher” was found dead in his dacha. It was the last thing he had listened to.

Shostakovich found Yudina’s open display of belief foolish, yet one senses within his complaints both envy and awe. In a time of heart-stopping fear, here was someone as fearless as Saint George before the dragon, someone who preferred giving away her few rubles to repairing her own broken window, who “published” with her own voice the poems of banned writers, who dared to tell Stalin that even he was not beyond God’s mercy and forgiveness. She had a large and pure heart.

No wonder her grave in Moscow has been a place of pilgrimage ever since she died, November 19, 1970.

* * *
Parts of this text were first published in Ladder of the Beatitudes (Orbis Books). This revised and expanded version was published online by Orthodoxy in Dialogue 1 June 2018:

* * *

Our friend the translator Larissa Volokhonsky adds this story:

Thank you for your excellent post about Maria Veniaminovna Yudina. I can tell you a funny story about her told by the cellist Rostropovich to one of my friends. Maybe it is a fable, but it’s funny anyway.

Once Yudina went to a storage room at the recording factory to get her copies of a record she had recorded with the music of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart. She took her ten copies. The man in the storage room asked: “do you know these guys, Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart?” — “I do very well” Yudina said truthfully. “Then could you, please, take their copies to them, too, so I don’t have to wait for them?” And he gave her thirty more copies…

* * *

Bridge Dweller

walls into bridges (Len Munnik)

As someone who made his way to the Orthodox Church from a Roman Catholic background, I am often asked why I became Orthodox and how I would compare the two churches.

In the 29 years since my Orthodox chrismation, my answers to both questions have evolved, but one of the constants has been to stress that, in crossing the Great Schism’s border in an eastward direction, I neither slammed nor locked any doors and that my transition had not involved a conversion. There has been but one conversion in my life and that occurred before I was either Catholic or Orthodox — my becoming a Christian, that is an apprentice follower of Jesus. Finding a church came next.

“But after so many years a Catholic,” friends have asked, “why your turn to Orthodox Christianity?”

In the early years, I tended to stress what I didn’t like about Catholicism: its monarchical papacy, a fast-food liturgy that too often could be described as a McMass, a legalistic approach to pastoral issues such as failed marriages, its insistence that priests be celibate, its obsession with sexual sins, its insertion of the filioque into the ancient creed. (As Hilaire Belloc wrote, “The moral is / it is indeed / you must not monkey / with the Creed.”)

Taking a slightly different tack, I sometimes said that the two churches were like parallel highways that at first glance looked nearly identical but then, on closer inspection, you notice the traffic moves more slowly on the Orthodox highway and that there are no police cars. With such slow-moving vehicles, cops aren’t needed.

On the positive side of my change-of-address, I emphasized the unhurried beauty of Orthodox worship, saying that each eucharistic meal is done “at Thanksgiving Day speed …. you wouldn’t want to eat a festive meal in a hurry.” I praised the Orthodox Church for its married priesthood and its relative lack of clericalism. I contrasted Orthodoxy’s more therapeutic approach to confession with the “shopping list of sins” approach that I had so often experienced in the Catholic Church. Recalling Jesus’s request to the apostles, “Let the children come unto me,” I asked if the Orthodox admission of children to communion as soon as they are baptized was not wiser than to delay communion until the would-be communicant reaches “the age of reason”? After all, I pointed out, few of us ever reach the age of reason. I argued that even Orthodoxy’s notorious slowness to change is more a plus than a minus in a culture in which short-lived ideological winds are blowing at hurricane force, with theological hemlines rising and falling as the winds howl.

But, Catholic friends would ask, are there no areas in which Catholicism is more admirable? Is there nothing you miss?

I freely admit that there are aspects of Orthodox Christianity that lag significantly behind its eastern counterpart, the most significant of which is tribalism. Catholics, in my experience, are far more likely to see themselves as members of a world church, a church in which national identity is secondary, a church on which the sun never sets, a church for whom all the dotted lines on world maps are provisional. One might be Korean, Irish, Italian, Polish, American, et cetera, but recognize these words are mere adjectives, whereas for too many Orthodox being Greek, Russian, Serbian or Bulgarian comes first. One was Orthodox because having an Orthodox identity was an essential aspect of having a particular national identity.

Another especially praiseworthy aspect of modern Catholicism is its conciliar teaching in regard to war. The one and only actual condemnation that was made by the Second Vatican Council was its condemnation of weapons of mass destruction and of city destruction. At the same time the bishops endorsed conscientious objection, praised those who refuse to obey unjust orders, and urged nonviolent approaches to conflict resolution. One seeks in vain to hear similar statements from the various Orthodox jurisdictions; instead one finds weapons, even nuclear weapons, still being blessed by priests and even hierarchs. Were a Greek or Russian Orthodox Christian to declare himself a conscientious objector, how many Orthodox bishops would give him support? We Orthodox prefer to remember that such saints as Martin of Tours were soldiers and forget that later on they renounced military service as inappropriate for Christ’s followers.

I have even learned to appreciate the papacy, which has been slowly undergoing its own reformation, most notably in the past half century. The pope is indeed a symbol of unity as well as the Christian voice most often heard in the world as a whole. Orthodox bishops are rarely heard beyond the borders of their citizenship.

“Okay,” various friends have said, “thanks to all you’ve said, it’s now even more puzzling that you’re in the Orthodox Church.”

I often respond with a joke: “Count me as a Catholic on loan to the Orthodox Church.” It’s not a perfect joke. Things on loan are normally returned to the lender. I am where God has nudged me to be and expect to spend the rest of my life in the Orthodox Church and gratefully so. But I remain deeply indebted to my years in the Catholic Church and see myself living and praying on an under-construction bridge crossing the river that flows between east and west in Christianity. Whether Orthodox or Catholic, we have so much to learn from each other.

— Jim Forest

29 November 2017
for the blog “Orthodoxy in Dialog”

* * *

Ten Things I Learned from Daniel Berrigan

By Jim Forest

I first met Dan Berrigan thanks to Dorothy Day. In the latter part of 1961 she had brought me with her to a small gathering in an apartment on the west edge of Harlem in uptown Manhattan. At the time I was managing editor of The Catholic Worker. Dan had come down from Syracuse to attend. He was a lean, wiry man with closely-cropped black hair dressed in tailored black clericals and a Roman collar. He was introduced to us as a poet who had won the Lamont Poetry Prize and was currently teaching theology at Le Moyne College, a Jesuit school, where he also had founded an international house at which students were living in community in preparation for justice-oriented work in Latin America.

Introductions over, Dan pulled a sheaf of paper from an inner jacket pocket and proceeded to read aloud an analysis of Catholic social teaching and the impact of Pope John XXIII. I have no doubt that it was an excellent essay, suggestive in style and content of all that would, in the coming years, become so widely appreciated in Dan’s writings. His prose always bore the stamp of his poetry. For better or worse, however, honesty requires the admission of my having a hard time keeping my eyes open and my ears alert — I must have had too little sleep the night before. I became more attentive during the discussion, but by then it was late and all too quickly we had to go our separate ways.

As we closed the apartment door behind us and began making our way back to the subway, I recall Dorothy was annoyed. “Just like a priest!” she snapped. “He didn’t leave room for anyone else to talk!” But on the subway she became more positive, recalling Dan bringing high school students to the Catholic Worker in the mid-fifties. The next day she asked me to write “Father Berrigan” — she never referred to priests informally — and request a copy of his paper. “I need to read it again. It might be something for us to publish.” This was a pattern I gradually came to anticipate in Dorothy, irritable one day, more positive the next.

After that first encounter, I didn’t see Dan again until a few years later, mid-June 1964, when he was on sabbatical and I was one of several Catholic participants in a traveling European seminar headed to Prague, where we would participate in an ecumenical conference of Christians, east and west, concerned about peace.

Dan was already in Paris, our first stop, when we arrived. At the time he was living as chaplain with a group of students on the Left Bank. At first sight I didn’t recognize him. The tailored clericals and Roman collar had been replaced with a black cotton turtleneck, trim black chino slacks, a faded green windbreaker jacket, and a suede leather tote bag slung over his shoulder, his mobile library and wine cellar combined. The transformation of clothing was less striking than Dan’s face. Three years of breakthroughs and setbacks had marked him. In 1961 he had struck me as a well-turned-out cleric taking root in academia like so many bright, up-and-coming Jesuits. Now his face seemed blizzard-worn, the pink blown away. In its place was bleached Maine rock etched with experiences of winter.

What had brought him, I asked, from Syracuse to Paris? It was due, he said, to his liturgical innovations — saying the Mass in English well before such usage was officially authorized — plus his engagement in the local civil rights movement, jeopardizing contributions to the university. These impolitic activities had caused tension between him and the college administration. After six years teaching theology at Le Moyne, Dan had been given a year-long sabbatical in France. “Was this meant as a sugar-coated exile?” I asked. “Very likely,” Dan responded, “but what a place to be!”

Our three-day Parisian stay included street searching, river walking, bread buying and wine sipping plus meetings with several remarkable people, including two “worker priests,” plain-clothed men whose mission was in factories rather than parishes. We also spent several hours with Jean Daniélou, fellow Jesuit and eminent scholar of the early church. Daniélou spoke to us about theologians of the first centuries of the Christian era, such saints as Gregory of Nyssa and his brother Basil the Great, who, using a modern term, could be described as pacifists, that is people for whom killing other human beings for any reason was a rejection of Christ and his gospel.

We traveled together from Paris to Rome and from there on to Prague. One night in Prague the several Catholics who were participating in the seminar resolved to found, on our return to the U.S., a group we christened the Catholic Peace Fellowship. Our main goal, we decided, would be to organize Catholic opposition to the Vietnam War, then in its early stages as far as America was concerned, and as part of that endeavor launch a national program to make known the fact that conscientious objection to war was an option not only for members of specifically pacifist “peace churches” like the Quakers and Mennonites but for Catholics as well.

Both of us back in New York, Dan was assigned to be one of the editors of Jesuit Missions, a monthly magazine, and I left my newspaper job to work fulltime for the Catholic Peace Fellowship. Tom Cornell, another former editor of The Catholic Worker, soon joined me. Beginning in January 1965, the three of us normally met once a week in Dan’s one-room apartment for Mass, to read letters the CPF had received, and to decide on other aspects of our work.

How to respond to the worsening conflict in Vietnam was a factor in every meeting. “I returned to the United States,” Dan later recalled, “convinced of one simple thing — the war in Vietnam could only grow worse…. [We Americans] were about to repeat the already bankrupt experience of the French [whose colonial war in Indochina had ended in defeat]…. I [was] afflicted with a sense that my life was being truly launched — for the first time — upon mortal and moral events that might indeed overwhelm me, as the tidal violence of world events churned them into an even greater fury…. I had a sense that this war would be the making or breaking of [my brother Phil and me].”

One of the Catholic Peace Fellowship’s most significant achievements in the years that followed was publishing a booklet, Catholics and Conscientious Objection, that went through more than 300,000 copies. I was the author; it remains my one runaway best seller. At fifteen cents a copy, it was out of no one’s reach. That booklet, whose orthodoxy was certified by an imprimatur from the Archdiocese of New York, was a factor in explaining how it is that so many thousands of young Catholics refused to fight in Vietnam.

Dan was of course pleased that our work was having a certain impact in building opposition to the war, but by 1968 decided it was time not only for opposition but resistance. On the 17th of May, with his brother Phil and seven others, he burned 378 draft records in a parking lot adjacent to a draft center in a Baltimore suburb. The event was headline news. The Catonsville Nine, as they were known, are still being talked about.

Dan’s was nothing if not a writer. When he died in April 2016, age 94, at a Jesuit nursing home on the Fordham campus, he left a legacy of more than sixty books of prose and poetry. But the text he is best known for was quite short — a two-page declaration in which he explained what led him to Catonsville. Here are some extracts:

“Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children, the angering of the orderlies in the front parlor of the charnel house. We could not, so help us God, do otherwise. For we are sick at heart. Our hearts give us no rest for thinking of the Land of Burning Children….

“All of us who act against the law turn to the poor of the world, to the Vietnamese, to the victims, to the soldiers who kill and die for the wrong reasons, or for no reason at all, because they were so ordered by the authorities of that public order which is in effect a massive institutionalized disorder. We say: Killing is disorder. Life and gentleness and community and unselfishness are the only order we recognize.

“For the sake of that order we risk our liberty, our good name…. How many … must die before our voices are heard? How many must be tortured, dislocated, starved, maddened? How long must the world’s resources be raped in the service of legalized murder? When, at what point, will you say no to this war? We have chosen to say, with the gift of our liberty, if necessary our lives: the violence stops here, the death stops here, the suppression of the truth stops here, this war stops here.

“Redeem the times! The times are inexpressibly evil. Christians pay conscious, indeed religious tribute, to Caesar and Mars, by the approval of overkill tactics, by brinkmanship, by nuclear liturgies, by racism, by support of genocide. They embrace their society with all their heart and abandon the cross. They pay lip service to Christ and military service to the powers of death….”

The nine defendants argued in court that attempts to impede an immoral and illegal war — to prevent the commission of war crimes — should be seen as justified, like running a red light to get a gravely injured child to the hospital. Not surprisingly, the court was not open to such arguments. For a time the nine, though convicted and sentenced to three years confinement, were free while the judgment was being appealed.

During that period of court-authorized freedom, Dan wrote a play based on the trial of the nine. It’s something of a modern Greek drama in the tradition of Antigone. It was also made into a film produced by Gregory Peck. The script has become assigned reading in many classrooms. The play continues to be performed all over the world.

Declining to exit the stage in order to begin serving his sentence as scheduled, Dan went underground. Sheltering in a Sherwood Forest of friends and friends of friends, Dan led the FBI on a Robin Hood-like chase that lasted four months. Daniel Berrigan, Jesuit priest, poet and theologian, was placed on the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted” list. In the annals of crime in America, he was the only person ever promoted to that august rank who never possessed a deadly weapon and posed a threat to no one’s life. They should have added a sentence: “This man is disarmed and dangerous.” While in hiding Dan did television and newspaper interviews and even preached in church one Sunday morning. I had a meeting with him one evening in an apartment a short walk from the FBI’s Manhattan headquarters. Dan seemed to be available to anyone and everyone except FBI agents. Finally he was found and handcuffed while staying in a hermitage provided by friends on Block Island. Not long afterward he and Phil were on the cover of Time magazine.

It takes a book to review all that happened in Dan’s life in the decades that followed — a remarkable journey in which the homeless, the gravely ill, those dying of AIDs, the unborn, all played a part. Dan taught in various schools and traveled widely. New books by him appeared every year. He was arrested over and over again for acts of protest. Dan’s life was shaped by the conviction that God does not sanction killing and that the way to heaven is the way of nonviolence and mercy. If you are drawn to take a closer look I recommend my biography of him. Rather than present year-by-year details of his remarkable life, instead let me share with you ten things that I suggest we can learn from his life.

1) Follow Jesus. This is what the Society of Jesus is all about, and indeed the main choices in Dan’s life make no sense apart from the Gospels. When money came his way, he gave it away. He owned practically nothing. He wore the same shirts and trousers year after year. Day or night, he was willing to put aside what he was doing and go where needed, often the bedside of someone faceto-face with death. “If you want to follow Jesus,” he famously said, “you have to look good on wood.” Followers of Christ were summoned to a life of sacrifice. In his introduction to a book entitled Quotations from Chairman Jesus, Dan wrote:

I can only tell you what I believe.
I believe I cannot be saved by foreign policies.
I cannot be saved by sexual revolutions.
I cannot be saved by the gross national product.
I cannot be saved by nuclear deterrents.
I cannot be saved by aldermen, priests, artists,
plumbers, city planners, social engineers,
nor by the Vatican,
nor by the World Buddhist Association
nor by Hitler nor by Joan of Arc
nor by angels and archangels,
nor by powers and dominations
I can be saved only by Jesus Christ.

A reporter once asked Dan, “Do you believe that Jesus is coming again?” Dan replied, “He never left.”

2) Christians should be notorious for their refusal to kill anyone. This was indeed the case in the early Church. It’s an aspect of the Christian past many Christians today would prefer not to know about. People for whom national flags are at the center of their identity will be scandalized by those who, like Dan Berrigan, would rather die than kill. In our world, the readiness to kill is widely regarded as the ultimate proof of patriotism. Millions of American Christians can more easily recite the Pledge of Allegiance than the Beatitudes, the seventh of which is “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Many Christians today — Dan was an exception — are made uncomfortable by the disturbing fact that, as the Gospels bear witness, Jesus waved no flags, killed no one, and participated in no wars. On the contrary, he preached love of enemies and practiced what he preached, even forgiving those who nailed him to a cross. Just days before his execution he rode a meek donkey rather than a war horse into Jerusalem. On the other hand he was no wimp. He famously overturned the tables of bankers who were engaged in money-changing in the Temple, but the whip he used to expel them threatened no one’s life. It stung and shamed but did not wound. His last healing miracle before his crucifixion was to repair the wound of one of the men arresting him. Dan Berrigan was one of the rare Christians who tried to shape his life around the Jesus who heals rather than sheds blood. Dan did his best to protect life, whether in the womb, in a death row cell, or in a war zone. In an open letter to a radical group called the Weather Underground that had turned to using bombs as a means of protest, Dan wrote, “No principle is worth the sacrifice of a single human being.”

3) In order to love our enemies we should meet our enemies. Another way of putting it is to say we need to cross borders until we realize that all borders are dotted lines. To give one example of border crossing, during the Vietnam War one of Dan’s significant actions was to go to Hanoi in order to bring home several American bomber pilots being held in prison in what was then North Vietnam. Night after night Dan had to take shelter while bombs shook the earth. “Being an American under American bombs was an education without parallel,” he wrote after his return. “It was as though the heavens had erupted and poured out the contempt of the gods.” Not only in the days but years that followed, what haunted Dan most were the faces of Vietnamese children, wide-eyed, terrified, sitting motionless in bomb shelters, innocent of war yet among its primary victims. One of Dan’s Hanoi poems, “Children in the Shelter,” focuses on the silent gaze of three children in the same hiding place:

Imagine; three of them.
As though survival
were a rat’s word,
and a rat’s death
waited there at the end
and I must have
in the century’s boneyard
heft of flesh and bone in my arms

I picked up the littlest
a boy, his face
breaded with rice (his sister calmly feeding him
as we climbed down).

In my arms fathered
in a moment’s grace, the messiah
of all my tears. I bore, reborn
a Hiroshima child from hell.

Holding in his arms children whose deaths would have tearlessly been written off as “collateral damage,” it became impossible for Dan not to love the enemy. The enemy was no longer a gray cardboard cut-out with a political label pasted on it but a unique and vulnerable human being made in the image of God.

4) Stay close to the sacraments. I recall Dan saying, “Jesus founded a church, not a book club. We will not study our way into heaven.” Dan stressed that the Last Judgment is not a theological exam in which the winners are the clever ones with the highest scores — mercy is what matters, not IQ. But what is the church, I asked. After much conversation, we agreed on an imprecise definition that went something like this: the church is a mystery hidden in institutional rags. It’s where we go for bread that is more than bread and wine that is more than wine. The church is both guardian of the word — the sacred texts — and curator of the sacraments. Not that it’s always the caretaker one would wish for. For too many popes, bishops and priests, the church has been a base for a ladder-climbing career. Yet we’ve never been without saints, loads of them, ordinary lower-case “s” saints, that is people who in one way or another lead Christ-shaped lives. Dan was one such witness, while his own mentors included Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.

Among the great joys of life was joining Dan in the celebration of the Mass. The style of our bread-breaking was as simple and graceful in line as a Shaker chair. A prayer for forgiveness was followed by intercession for friends who were ill or in difficulty. We took turns reading the appointed texts for the day plus perhaps a supplementary reading from a more-or-less modern source. After the readings, silence. Then some reflection on the readings. More silence. Then a simple canon prayer read by Dan from the Bible Missal, a Mass book widely used at the time. More silence. Finally, after the unspectacular miracle of consecration, came the sharing in that quiet miracle, and more silence, perhaps some more prayer, and an embrace at the end. Everything we achieved was founded on this eucharistic bedrock.

Another great help was going to confession with him. The confession with Dan that I remember best happened toward midnight in Manhattan in the mid-sixties. Dan and I were walking back toward his residence after a meeting with college students. At the time confession was becoming an unfashionable sacrament. The argument ran, “God knows, why tell a priest?” For many social activists, sin’s main validity was chiefly in the public sphere: complicity in war crimes, greedy use of the planet’s resources — social sins, sins we commit en masse. But I was unable to shake off a painful awareness that I was also guilty of sins of the old-fashioned variety.

Dan listened. Confession can be like giving birth. Births are always hard, my words were coming hard, but Dan was a patient and cheerful midwife. I finished. We walked along in the special silence of Manhattan on a rainy night, not a word from either one of us until Dan announced, “Hey, Jimmy, look at this!” We stopped. I discovered that we were in a wealthy zone of the Upper East Side and that Dan was gazing into the window of a store that sold every sort of sleep gear: silk and velvet eye masks, pillows with radios inside, pillows that provide the sounds of rain and water, down-filled pajamas, Swiss-made ear plugs, cashmere slippers, fur-trimmed blankets, silk and satin sheets. Dan was delighted. He pointed from item to item. “Look at that, Jimmy! Mink ear muffs!” I had never been invited to window-shop in a confessional before. Dan said, “This is how the other half sleeps!”

It dawned on me that the sleep-store window tour was Dan’s comment on the unexamined life, his way of laughing at the moral sleepwalk I had been owning up to. And it was a celebration. “Look, Jimmy!” Which is to say, “Jimmy, this is where you were but now you’re awake again.” Walking away from the shop, Dan said to me words I had often heard in the tight enclosure of a confessional, “With the authority I have received from the Church, in the name of Jesus Christ, I absolve you from all your sins.”

5) Stick with your commitments. The sixties was a decade in which a great many commitments unraveled for lots of people. Dan’s did not.

There was for example his unbreakable bond with the Catholic Church despite his frequently expressed criticisms of its many failures, its damaged history, its institutionalism.

Dan remained a Jesuit. This is remarkable given the fact that many Jesuits would have been pleased had Dan been severed from the Society. Expulsion came close on more than one occasion. “This is the Society’s Jonah option,” Dan told me, “with myself playing the part of whale food.” Shortly after his release from prison, Dan moved into a Jesuit residence in which not everyone was honored to have the prison-stained Daniel Berrigan in their midst. “Such arrogance!” said one elder. “He is in the Society but not of it,” said another. Happily, a few years later, he became part of another Jesuit community in which he felt truly part of a family. By the time of his death he had become one of the boasts of the Society of Jesus rather than one of its embarrassments.

In a period when celibacy was regarded by many as an indication of mental illness, Dan remained a celibate and even managed to joke about it. I recall an exchange with Dan at a Student Christian Movement conference in Sheffield, England in 1973. The question was raised, “Father Dan, would you please explain celibacy?” Without skipping a beat, Dan replied, “Forgive me, I forgot to bring my celibacy slide show.” Much laughter, but that was all the answer the questioner pried out of him.

He hung onto his family as well, including his difficult father, a good man in many respects but too often possessed by his volcanic temper. As a boy, when his dad was present, the first lions’ den Dan ever occupied was his own home.

Dan even hung onto America. His dissident actions were animated not by contempt or a desire to live elsewhere but, he remarked more than once, by “outraged love.” “Outrage” is an adjective; the key word is “love.” His patriotic labor was to help create a post-imperial America that had ceased making weapons of mass destruction, given up imposing regimes in other countries, and no longer treated anyone anywhere like Kleenex.

6) Visit the sick. In one way or another Dan undertook all the works of mercy, but perhaps none so intensely and so often as visiting the sick. For years he was a volunteer at Saint Rose’s Home, where a community of Dominican nuns and their helpers cared for penniless people dying of cancer. Next came more years of volunteer work with AIDs patients at Saint Vincent’s Hospital. Dan had a remarkable gift for connecting with people who were on the border line of the graveyard. He wasn’t embarrassed to talk about death or to hold hands with the dying. He had a talent for not coming on as a cleric whose goal was to squeeze a deathbed conversion out of you.

One of the classes Dan taught for a time was about pastoral care of the dying. Mel Hollander, a friend of mine, signed up for it not because he expected to become a pastor of any kind but because he himself was dying of cancer and thought the class might help him cope with the severe depression he was struggling with. The cancer was in an advanced state — Mel’s pale waxy skin and the bruised areas around his eyes couldn’t be ignored. During the period of silence with which Dan started his classes, his eye fell on Mel and stayed there for what seemed to Mel an eternity. At last Dan broke the silence with a question to Mel: “What’s the matter?” Mel considered for a moment giving an evasive answer but decided instead to reveal his calamity: “I’m dying. I’m dying of cancer.” Without batting an eye, Dan replied, “That must be very exciting.”

Mel told me afterward that no medication he was taking, no book he had read, had done so much good for him as those five words. They were a kind of lightning flash. In the light of that flash, Mel said, “was the resurrection of Jesus, as real as the streets of New York.” He knew at once that he was in the midst of the most remarkable experience of his life. Nose to nose with death, suddenly he felt intensely alive. Perhaps it was that flash of lightning that somehow pushed the cancer back. In any event Mel, who had come into Dan’s class expecting to die within months, lived another seven years, finally dying in a fire. In what Mel called his “extra years,” he devoted himself to work with Vietnamese refugees.

7) Avoid burn-out. Dan once remarked, “Too many people I know are over-worked and under-joyed.” Dan, however, was not under-joyed.

Dan went for a good long walk every day, often alone, sometimes with a friend, until his legs were no longer up to it. What was he doing? Praying part of the time, often just looking — at faces, at plants, at passing traffic, at shop windows. Just breathing, just being alive.

An elderly lady I used to know once advised me, “Only read things that make your heart beat.” Dan thought this was excellent guidance. The last time Dan was a guest in our home I was surprised to notice several mystery novels lying on the floor next to his bed. I’m not sure what I was expecting him to read. Maybe theology, maybe political science, maybe the news. But finding out who killed Major Green with a hatchet in the library helped keep Dan from drying out.

One of Dan’s greatest pleasures was cooking for guests. These ranged from headliners to the socially obscure — students, fellow Jesuits, people with AIDs, social activists, theater people, artists, ex-cons, pre-cons, writers, poets, diplomats, politicians… Were one to list the guests and their roles in life, you’d need a roll of paper a mile long. Dan took immense pleasure in having guests and making meals for them. The table was, he said, an outpost of heaven. When he was part of the Woodstock Jesuit community on West 98th Street, he wrote on the wall adjacent to his refrigerator this text from the great Irish abbess Saint Brigit of Kildare:

I should like a great lake of beer for the King of Kings.
I should like the angels of Heaven to be drinking it through time eternal.
I should like excellent meats of belief and pure piety.
I should like flails of penance at my house.
I should like the men of heaven at my house;
I should like barrels of peace at their disposal;
I should like vessels of charity for distribution;
I should like for them cellars of mercy.
I should like cheerfulness to be in their drinking.
I should like Jesus to be there among them.
I should like the three Marys of illustrious renown to be with us.
I should like the people of heaven, the poor, to be gathered around us from all parts.

8) Pay attention to the prophets: During the last two decades of his life Dan’s published work centered on biblical studies with books on the prophets a major focus. There was a ready-made affinity. The prophets of Israel and Dan Berrigan of New York City were God-haunted persons inclined to make gestures that spoke louder than words. They were outraged with injustice, outspoken, often overcome by sorrow and anger for the ways their countrymen ignored divine commandments, abused creation, hated their neighbor, and worshiped almost anything but God.

Dan found that it was through the prophets that the God of mercy, the God of compassion, the God of self-giving love, is most vividly revealed, in contrast to the nightmare god of pitiless condemnations and executions, the great punisher, the everlasting warden of the inferno. As Dan noted in a letter to Robert Ellsberg: “My sense is that God isn’t in any recognizable way self-revealed until 800-500 BCE and the [writings of the] prophets.”

A golden thread running through the books of the prophets, Dan noted, is “a very strong bias in favor of the victim and a very strong sense of judgment of evil structures and those who run them. The prophets and Christ talk about the God who stands at the bottom with the victims and with the ‘widows and orphans’ and witnesses with them in the world, from that terrifying vantage point which is like the bottom of the dry well that Jeremiah was thrown into. That vantage point defines the crime and sin; that point of view of the victim indicts the unjust, the oppressor, the killer, the war maker. And the message is very clear. It’s a very clear indictment of every superpower from Babylon to Washington.”

Asked if he had a favorite prophet, Dan singled out Isaiah: “When Jesus announces who he is in the synagogue, he opens the scroll to Isaiah …. Even apart from that, I would love Isaiah, but knowing Jesus loved him really adds something, too.” It also impressed Dan that Isaiah was part of a community: “We tend to think of the prophets as loners, but that is not true of any of them. All of what went on got in the scroll somehow — somebody listened and somebody took notes. So there was community all over the place, as far as I can judge, and these writings went through many minds and hearts and pens before they arrived in our hands. It’s very good that we at the other end of this tradition are meant to absorb it in community because that’s the way it got started and transmitted.”

Dan devoted a book to his biblical namesake, Daniel, a Jew-in-exile who served the Babylonian king honestly but not unconditionally. When he refused to worship idols as the king commanded, Daniel was thrown into the lions’ den to be eaten alive. Instead he was given divine protection and the next day walked away from the lions unharmed. In the text’s Christian reading, Daniel provides a prophetic sign of Christ’s death and resurrection.

Dan stressed that the prophets give additional evidence, if more were needed, that one need not achieve a state of inner tranquility before engaging in peace work. “The notion that one has to achieve peace of mind before stretching out one’s hand to one’s neighbor,” Dan wrote, “is a distortion of our human experience, and ultimately a dodge of our responsibility. Life is a rollercoaster, and one had better buckle one’s belt and take the trip. This focus on equanimity is actually a narrow-minded, selfish approach to reality dressed up within the language of spirituality…. Open up the book of Jeremiah and you do not find a person looking for inner peace. Jeremiah goes through mountains and valleys. That kind of richness I find very appealing, whereas the kind of spirituality that looks for a flat emotional landscape brought on by the endless search for inner peace and equanimity I find disturbing, a quest that goes nowhere.”

9) Learn to say no, not only to politicians and lawmakers but even to your friends. In 1985, filmmaker Roland Joffé came to Dan’s apartment with a proposal: would he take part in a forthcoming movie about the radical Jesuit missions in eighteenth-century Latin America? The Jesuits, until their communities were destroyed and the Society of Jesus temporarily suppressed, managed to protect the native people from slavery. Through much of the spring and summer of 1985 Dan was in Colombia, Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay for the filming of The Mission, directed by Joffé, written by Robert Bolt and starring Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons, with Liam Neeson in a supporting role. Dan served as an advisor and also played the part of a Jesuit priest, Father Sebastian. Though appearing in many scenes, Dan’s only spoken line, appropriately, was the word “no.”

Dan said no in a wide variety of ways and in many different contexts. Saying no to racism, he was one of those who went to Selma, though most of his anti-racist activity was in the north. He said no to war on a more or less daily basis from his thirties into his nineties. He said no to capital punishment, abortion and euthanasia. He said no to any ideology which justified killing as a method of improving the world. And all this meant on many occasions saying no not to adversaries but to friends and allies.

10) One last lesson: don’t let fear be your mainspring. Dan’s life and choices are full of challenges for each of us. What keeps us from doing what needs to be done? Why do we lead such cautious lives? What keeps us from having a life that in some sense that is shaped by the works of mercy? What keeps us from saying “no” when a “no” is needed? Why do we battle so few dragons? The answer is fear.

One of Thomas Merton’s most important essays, first published in The Catholic Worker in October 1961, explored his insight that the root of war is fear. No reader was more challenged by that essay than Dan. Days later he wrote to Merton. A friendship took root that lasted the rest of Merton’s life.

Little by little you come to realize that it’s not only war that is rooted in fear but also many of the choices we make — where to live, what to study, who to meet and who to avoid, who to vote for, what to see and what to ignore. Our fearfulness,” Dan said, “is our confession of unconvertedness.”

Given the fearless choices Dan made, it is remarkable he lived so long a life and died of old age.

He’s buried side by side with other Jesuits, at the Shrine of the Jesuit Martyrs in Auriesville, near Albany. “We took turns reading from scripture and from Dan’s own works,” Joe Cosgrove, his lawyer, wrote to me after the funeral, “then prayed for those most in need, and wept … Dan’s coffin into the earth. Then the adults took turns shoveling earth over the coffin while the kids played among the gravestones.”

While the Jesuits had prepared a headstone similar to all the others that stood vigil in the cemetery, Carla Berrigan Pittarelli and her husband Marc created a supplementary grave marker that included the few words Dan had once proposed as his epitaph:

“It was never dull, alleluia!”

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Jim Forest’s most recent book is At Play in the Lions’ Den: a biography and memoir of Daniel Berrigan (Orbis Book, 2017). His earlier books include biographies of Thomas Merton (Living With Wisdom) and Dorothy Day (All Is Grace).

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lecture at Fordham 1 May 2018 / draft text as of 15 April 2018

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Conversion, Not Domination: Inga Leonova talks with Jim Forest

From The Wheel, issue 12, Winter 2018 / special issue on War & Christ

Inga Leonova talks with Jim Forest

Thank you, Jim, for speaking to The Wheel about your lifelong advocacy of peacemaking as essential to Christian witness. To begin, perhaps you could talk about the historical understanding of war in the Christian tradition, including the doctrine of Just War, which has found many adherents.

The Just War theory emerged in Western Christianity and never became rooted in Eastern Christianity. Instead, in the East, there is a relatively undeveloped theology that war is sometimes forced on a nation under attack, but is only justified to the extent that the nation is defending itself from invasion. Even then, many restraints were placed on the practice of war. If you examine Byzantine history and theological writings about war, it is striking to see the extent to which war was avoided. Many emperors made compromises and paid huge amounts from the imperial treasury to prevent war. As for a theology of war in the East? There simply is no “Just War” doctrine in the Fathers.

How about Orthodox hymns such as the Troparion for the Cross, which originally read, “Grant victory to the Orthodox emperor over his enemies”? And what about warrior saints? How do you reconcile this part of Orthodox tradition with the exaltation of peace in the Gospel?

Hymns such as the Troparion of the Cross do raise issues. But, of course, victory need not mean military defeat of the enemy. It could mean something more like their conversion to a different attitude toward us—a transformation of their behaviour. I think this is, in fact, the correct way to understand these hymns. Orthodox Christianity is essentially a religion of conversion rather than domination.

As for warrior saints—their Lives are complicated, but also surprising. Take Saint George, the most famous example. On the one hand, we know very little about the historical person, George. He was a martyr, but we can’t say much more. He may not have been an actual solider, but perhaps was a soldier more in the sense that Saint Paul uses military metaphors to describe the ideal Christian life: George had courage, he was armed with truth, his feet were shod with the gospel of peace. It wasn’t until the composition of the Golden Legend in the thirteenth century that the story of battling the dragon emerged. Of course, the historical George never saw a dragon, but again, metaphorically and spiritually he certainly battled dragons: he battled fear and the command of the emperor to make pagan sacrifice. For that reason, the dragon story—though a legend—is inspired and compelling.

In fact, I would say that the life of Saint George is entirely a metaphor of conversion: the saint arrives on a white horse, symbolizing courage; his shield bears the sign of the Cross, showing that he is a soldier of Christ, not of the world; in many icons, he is shown wielding a lance thinner than a pencil—hardly a mighty weapon of war; and he has a dispassionate expression, not a warmongering look. Also, we should remember that he does not kill the dragon but only wounds it, and in many icons the rescued pagan princess is shown putting her girdle around the dragon’s neck and leading it away.

Perhaps we might also think of Saint Alexander Nevsky. Why was he canonized? Because he was victorious in battle? Or because he became a repentant monk and peacemaker who, in a somewhat scandalous way, made compromises with the Golden Horde, which led to a period of peace? It is striking that it was not until the reign of Peter the Great that he was depicted as a military saint. The icons before that time did not show him in this way, but rather as a monk.

So it seems that the exaltation of military might is a matter of subsequent interpretation, necessitated by political circumstances?

Absolutely. It’s a matter of post-mortem militarization—often a very long time after the saint died, as in the case of Saint George and Saint Alexander. We must remember that, in the nineteenth century, the West (including Russia) was swept by a wave of nationalism, and many of these saints were recruited as military heroes for the nationalist cause. I am certain that if we study the lives of the saints and learn to read their hagiography correctly, we will not find a single one who was canonized because of military achievements.

This leads us back to the issue of domination and onward to our contemporary situation. In the last twenty or thirty years, the world has experienced wars waged by and between Orthodox nations. The aggressions of Russia in Georgia and Ukraine, for example, have been shrouded in the pseudo-religious rhetoric of Russkiy Mir (“the Russian World”), which asserts the religious primacy of the Russian church and state over all the Orthodox of Slavic Tradition. What do you think about the relationship between Christianity and nationalism?

The first thing that springs to mind is Saint Paul’s comment that there is “neither Greek nor Jew” (Gal. 3:28). It is so obvious from the New Testament that Christianity is not a national religion. There is no such thing as Russian Orthodoxy, there is only Orthodoxy in the Russian tradition, in the Greek tradition, in the Antiochian tradition, and so forth. To the extent that religion becomes confused with national identity, it is no longer a form of Christianity.

One of the items discussed at the 1917 Moscow Council was whether the Church should be called “The Orthodox Church in Russia” or “The Russian Orthodox Church.” The council fathers chose the latter, which I think is unfortunate, because it gives the impression that Russian identity has primacy over the identity conveyed by the words that follow. “The Orthodox Church in Russia” strikes quite a different tone.

Perhaps the fathers of the Orthodox Church in America had a better ear for language and therefore chose a better name? The OCA was in some ways intended to overcome the diasporic national divisions of the Orthodox in America—but, of course, it hasn’t been entirely successful in that regard.

And, of course, those responsible for securing the OCA’s autocephaly weren’t caught up in national struggles in the same way as the fathers of the Moscow Council. The OCA was named at a time when national identity for Orthodox Christians in America was not a consideration in the same way as for Russians in 1917.

Let’s talk a bit about your own work as a peacemaker. In your seminal essay, “Salt of the Earth,” you lay out a number of aspects of witnessing to Christ’s peace, especially in times of war. For those who are unfamiliar with your work, perhaps you could explain them to us?

Yes. I think there are at least seven aspects of Christian peacemaking. The first is loving our enemies. Here we have to repair a damaged word, because love has been sentimentalized, and the biblical meaning of the word is quite different. Christ calls his followers to love their enemies. If we understand love as a euphoric feeling or pleasurable sentiment, then fulfilling this commandment is impossible. But if we understand love as doing what we can to protect the life and seek the salvation of a person or group whom we fear or hate, then it is very different. An essential aspect of response to that commandment is to pray for our enemies—a thread of daily connection through prayer.

The second aspect is related: doing good to enemies. Jesus teaches his followers, “Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you” (Luke 6:27–28). This teaching is often viewed as unrealistic—but, in fact, it is a teaching full of common sense. Unless we want to pave the way to a tragic future, we must search for opportunities to demonstrate to an opponent our longing for an entirely different kind of relationship. An adversary’s time of need or crisis can provide that opening.

The third aspect is turning the other cheek. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “If someone strikes you on the cheek, offer him the other also” (Matt. 5:39). Contrast this with the advice provided in the average film or novel, where the message is often: “If you are hit, hit back. Let your blow be harder than the one you received.” In fact, as we saw in the U.S. attack on Iraq in 2003, you needn’t be hit at all in order to justify striking others. Provocation, irritation, and the fear of attack are warrant enough. Turning the other cheek is often seen as an especially suspect Christian teaching. For a great many people, it seems contrary to natural justice or, at the very least, it isn’t “manly.” Only cowards turn the other cheek, they say. But what cowards actually do is run and hide. Standing in front of a violent person, refusing to get out of the way, takes enormous courage. It’s a way of giving witness to confidence in the reality and power of the resurrection.

The fourth aspect of peacemaking is forgiveness. Nothing is more fundamental to Jesus’ teaching than his call to forgiveness: giving up debts, letting go of grievances, pardoning those who have harmed us, not despairing of the other. Every time we say the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to forgive us only insofar as we ourselves have extended forgiveness to others. Which of us doesn’t know how much easier it is to ask God to forgive us rather than to extend forgiveness to others? We are wounded and the wounds often last a lifetime. Sins—often quite serious sins—have been committed against us. Others we love have suffered or may even have died through the evil done to them. But we are not only victims. In various ways, we are linked to injuries others have suffered and are suffering. Yet, we are moved to condemn the evils we see in others and to excuse—even justify—the evils we practice ourselves. In fact, we all both need and must offer forgiveness.

The fifth aspect is breaking down the dividing wall of enmity. We live in a world of walls: competition, contempt, repression, racism, nationalism (as we discussed above), violence, domination—all of these are seen as normal. Enmity is ordinary. The self and self-interest form the center point in so many lives. We tend to be fear-driven. Love and the refusal to center one’s life in enmity are dismissed as naive, idealistic, even unpatriotic, especially if one reaches out constructively to hated minorities or national enemies. But we must break down these walls if we want peace.

The sixth aspect is nonviolent resistance to evil. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil” (Matt. 5:38–39). When Peter used violence to defend Jesus, he was instantly admonished: “Put your sword back into its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). For several hundred years following the resurrection, the followers of Jesus were renowned for their refusal to perform military service. But since the state became a patron of Christianity, Christians have been as likely as any other people to take up the sword, and often use it in appalling ways. Refusal to kill others can be a powerful witness, yet Christian life is far more than the avoidance of evil situations. Christians cannot be passive about those events and structures that cause innocent suffering and death. More recently, nonviolent struggle has become a recognized alternative to passivity on the one hand, and to violence on the other.

The last element of peacemaking is aspiring to a life of recognizing Jesus. In his teaching about the Last Judgment, Christ tells us, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40). It is a scene represented in icons and relief carvings in many ancient churches. Looking at such images, occasionally the question is raised: “Why are we judged collectively?” Perhaps it is because each person’s life is far from over when he or she dies. Our acts of love and failures to love continue to have consequences until the end of history. What Adam and Eve did, what Moses did, what Herod did, what Mary the mother of Jesus did, what Pilate did, what the Apostles did . . . what Caesar did, what Hitler did, what Martin Luther King did, what Dorothy Day and Mother Maria Skobtsova did . . . what you and I have done and are doing—all these lives, with their life-giving or death-dealing content, continue to have consequences every single day for the rest of history. What you and I do, and what we fail to do, will have consequences until the end of time.

If I cannot see the face of Jesus in the face of those who are my enemies, if I cannot see him in the unbeautiful, if I cannot see him in those who have the wrong ideas, if I cannot see him in the poor and the defeated, how will I see him in bread and wine, or in life after death? If I do not reach out in this world to those with whom he has identified himself, why do I imagine that I will want to be with him, and them, in heaven? Why would I want to be for all eternity in the company of those whom I hated and avoided every day of my life? Christ’s kingdom would be hell for those who avoided peace and devoted their lives to division. But heaven is right in front of us. At the heart of what Jesus says in every act and parable is this: Now, this minute, we can enter the kingdom of God.

That’s a very powerful mandate. Of your seven aspects of peacemaking, which would you say is the hardest to carry out?

They’re all hard! In the Beatitudes, the first—poverty of spirit—is the most difficult. But without poverty of spirit, the rest do not follow. Without poverty of spirit, you will never have purity of heart, for example. Without poverty of spirit, you will never embrace the Cross. I think it’s the same with my seven aspects of peacemaking: the first, love of enemies, is the hardest. Yet it is foundational to Christianity. And I’m not saying that as someone who finds it easy to love his enemies! I can easily be aroused to the point of wishing that my enemy would suffer and die. It is easy to manipulate my emotional response to enmity. I’m just like anyone else. But I cannot understand the gospel apart from the commandment to love one’s enemies.

It seems to me that love of enemies is a lesson which the Christian Church has struggled to learn and practice throughout history. In each generation, some succeed more than others, some fail more than others. To even want to love an enemy is extremely challenging. But here, the idea that I mentioned above, about de-sentimentalizing the word “love,” is key to beginning to practice this commandment. It has to be understood in the context of a life of conversion: seeking our own conversion, seeking the conversion of others. Our conversions are interconnected. In this way we can begin to grasp its meaning, and have some hope of moving in that direction.

Prayer is essential here, too. Prayer is the beginning of love. To the extent that I can sincerely pray for my enemy and for his or her welfare, enlightenment, peace, health, salvation, I participate in God’s own connection with that person and discover that they are connected with God’s life, just as I am—perhaps even more so. Jesus explicitly links love of enemies with prayer for them. Without prayer, love of enemies is impossible. Saint Silouan of the Holy Mountain put special emphasis on this. He became a monk after nearly killing another young man in his village—in fact, for some minutes he thought he had become a murderer. Not long afterward, he went to Mount Athos. Much of his teaching later in life centered on love of enemies. He insisted that he who does not love his enemies does not have God’s grace.

Right, because when you pray for a person, he or she really becomes a person—and ceases to be an abstract idea or an obstacle to my goals. Prayer contributes to a process of personalization. Speaking of prayer and love in action, you’ve written extensively about Saint Maria (Skobtsova) of Paris, who was a great light during the Second World War. What about her life captured your imagination?

I was brought to the writings of Mother Maria by one of Metropolitan Kallistos Ware’s books, and it seemed to me then that her writings were almost identical with those of Dorothy Day, who played a major role as my own life as my first spiritual mother. She was the founder of the Catholic Worker movement and, although she was a very devout Roman Catholic, she was the first person to bring me into an Orthodox Church.

There are actually tremendous similarities between the lives of Dorothy Day and Mother Maria. In the same year, 1933, they both founded houses of hospitality in major cities: Day in New York and Mother Maria in Paris. Both were committed to what I would call radical hospitality toward those in danger, whether of dying on the streets or being taken away by the police. In Mother Maria’s case, this cost her life, because she took in Jews and did everything possible to save them from the Nazis. Both women were also involved in ecumenical dialogue, especially between Orthodox and Catholics.

In terms of their writings, you could almost take a paragraph from each, scramble the sentences, and play a game to figure out which sentence was written by which woman. It would be impossible to decide unless you already knew the quotations. I was captivated by the sentiment I found in both women, that God is present in every person and must be venerated in each person. Each person is an icon of God. Dorothy Day prepared me to encounter this in Mother Maria.

When one looks at the life of Mother Maria, one sees not only that she was a great theologian—and one must not forget that she was and remains a great theological voice, one of the most important theologians of recent Orthodox history—but also that she had the opportunity to live out her theology. She saw in each person another face of Christ. For these reasons, I have been fascinated by her and her writings, and I am glad to have been able to arrange for the publication of some of her work in English.

Finally, sometimes people say that religion leads to war. This seems to be true of the current “culture wars,” for example. How would you respond to this charge, especially with respect to the militant stance that religious groups often assume in culture wars?

I have tremendous respect for some of the so-called “culture warriors.” David Bentley Hart, for example, is someone whose writings I admire. But the main task for Christians is to bear witness to Christ, who does not kill. The fact that Jesus killed nobody has implications for us. When we see Christianity being leveraged to promote conflict, which can easily lead to war, then we have to say that it is no longer Christianity but an ideology. Unfortunately, Christianity—like all religions—can easily be transformed into an ideology and then become quite deadly.

We Orthodox are too comfortable with what is a quite remarkable phrase, which we use without any resistance: “the precious and life-giving Cross.” When we actually contemplate what that means, it is very difficult to revere the Cross, to want to be on the Cross, to see anything good about the Cross. If we reimagine the Cross as a modern instrument of murder or execution, like a guillotine or an electric chair, then we become more aware of how shocking it is to speak about “the precious and life-giving Cross.”

One of the earliest depictions of the Cross on a Christian building is found on the huge doors of the Church of Santa Sabina in Rome, which date from the fifth century. It is interesting to me that it is not terribly prominent. Christians in Rome at that time clearly weren’t yet ready to embrace “the precious and life-giving Cross”—perhaps because Rome was a place where people had been crucified. It was still shocking. We need to recover that. We need to grasp what it means to worship a God who practiced peace and did not fuel the cycle of war and violence.

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Becoming Peacemakers, a work in progress

by Jim Forest

two-part lecture for the “Voices for Peace” conference in Toronto 28 April 2018 / draft as of 12 April 2018

the images that go with the text are in this folder:

T1 – whole earth photo

Good morning! It’s a big day. We’re gathered together today to talk, think, pray and sing about peacemaking. May our conversations be fruitful.

If you do a lot of thinking on a certain topic — for example war and peace — you tend to translate those thoughts into what you talk about with others, into what you pray and meditate about, into what you read about, and finally into what you do and the way you live. Little by little you cross the border from peace thinker and peace wisher to peace maker. Not that any of us ever fully becomes a peacemaker. It’s always an aspiration — a work in progress. It’s a bridge you’re always crossing without ever arriving at the other side.

T2 – Pogo with sign “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Again and again you crash into the proverb, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Our greedy egos keep getting in the way.

What brought us here today? In my own case, I’ve been thinking about war and peace since I was eight or nine years old. I’m now 76! How surprising it is to have reached such an age. In my twenties I thought it very unlikely that I’d live to be 30. Anticipated cause of death: nuclear war.

Let me tell you about one of the big events of my childhood. It must have been in 1950 or ’51 that two young Japanese women, survivors of the atom bomb that had been dropped on Nagasaki on the 9th of August 1945, arrived in my home town, Red Bank, New Jersey, as house guests of Roger Squire, the local Methodist minister, and his family. A national peace group had arranged for plastic surgeons in New York to treat some of the people who had been burned by the blasts. Thanks to my mother’s occasional attendance at Methodist church services, I saw those two very poised women sitting side-by-side in a pew near the front of the church, their faces hidden behind silk veils.

T3 – Nagasaki ruins

I couldn’t stop staring. Though I had seen a few post-explosion photos of victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, being in sight of these two women brought home to me in a more intimate way than any photograph the human dimension of war, the effects of nuclear weapons, and the fact that the victims of war are rarely those responsible for war. I was also old enough to be aware that taking Japanese victims of America’s atom bombs into one’s home was not something that all Americans would appreciate. In the icy climate of the Cold War, such hospitality required courage. Mr. and Mrs. Squire gave me an early glimpse of what following Christ was all about. They gave witness to the Gospel words, “I was a stranger and you took me in.”

In a sense these two Japanese women were visitors from the future. I was just beginning to read science fiction. The darkest fantasies of science fiction seemed to be unfolding, our world destined to become a radioactive wasteland in which any survivors would envy the dead and most of the achievements of civilization turned to ash and rubble.

T4 – Nevada nuclear bomb test seen from Las Vegas

In the years following my mother’s purchase of our first television set in 1951, one of the occasional “news specials” allowed us to join the live audience witnessing America’s open-air nuclear test explosions. Cameras, television crews, reporters, scientists, observers and military brass were positioned not many miles from the Nevada blast site. Views of the desert test site were interlaced with interviews with generals until the countdown began. Ten nine eight seven six… There was at last the apocalyptic word “zero” followed by a split second of silence, then the screen going white followed by the spectacle of an expanding transparent globe of light and fire that gave birth to a seething column of smoke exploding upward in which a kind of fire never seen before 1945 was rotating within a mushroom cloud.

T5- Nevada nuclear bomb test – blasted house

For one of the tests, buildings had been constructed at varying distances from ground zero, with blast-protected high-speed cameras at strategic points. Soon after the test, television viewers saw in slow motion the blast’s impact on houses not unlike our own. A two-story white clapboard house turned black on its blast-facing side before the shock wave struck. Then the structure, as if made of paper-thin glass, was in a flash turned to fragments while the splinters were catapulted away from ground zero by a wind far beyond hurricane strength.

The nuclear tests were a kind of death notice, a prediction of next week’s weather, an announcement that we were all walking into a blast furnace — not Apocalypse Now but Apocalypse Soon. A popular saying at that grim time was “better dead than red.”

It really is a miracle that we’re here today, survivors of what has almost happened time and again. So many times the world has come within hours and even minutes of nuclear war. To cite just one case, in October 1962, a Russian Navy officer, Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov, violating orders and risking his career, if not worse, refused to authorize a Soviet nuclear attack on the USA.

T6 – Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov

The context was the Cuba crisis. Arkhipov was aboard a nuclear-armed Soviet submarine. Three men each had to turn a key. He alone refused to do so. Had he done what the rules obliged him to do, none of us would be here today. Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., an advisor to the Kennedy administration, has commented, “This was not only the most dangerous moment of the Cold War. It was the most dangerous moment in human history.” Words cannot express how much we owe to Vasili Arkhipov and others like him who were supposed to turn a key or push the red button but refused to do so.

By the skin of our teeth we have lived with nuclear weapons without their being used in war since 1945 — 73 years. In geological time that’s not even one second, but for human beings 73 years seems close to forever. One begins to get complacent, but complacency about weapons of mass destruction is a dangerous state of mind, like jumping from the top floor of a hundred-story building and thinking half way down that it’s not as dangerous as people say.

We’ve had more than seven decades without nuclear war but these have not been years of peace — rather years of constant war. I won’t list them — it would take too long, but go to Wikipedia, use the search string “wars since 1945,” and see for yourself.

T7 – Wars-in-progress screen

The wars themselves are countable. What no one has an even approximate count of is how many people have been killed or maimed or mentally and spiritually devastated by all these tidal waves of mass violence. Just to single out one, in the decade-long US-segment of the Vietnam War, 1965-1975, the estimate for the dead alone is three million, the great majority of them non-combatants. For the US segment of the war in Afghanistan, the estimate so far is a million dead. Nor has anyone attempted to calculate the catastrophic environmental impact of all these wars. War and war-related industry has been a huge factor in global warming.

In 1961, when I was nineteen, I was peripherally involved in one of the smaller and briefer wars. At the time I was a third-class petty officer in the US Navy, part of a meteorological unit at the US Weather Service in Suitland, Maryland, just outside Washington, DC.

T8 – JF graduating Navy boot camp May 1959

You see me in uniform the spring day in 1959 that I finished boot camp.

The suite of rooms used by our Navy unit included a small television studio that was directly connected to the War Room of the Pentagon. Twice a day one of the officers, standing before a rotating map, presented an overview of weather news for the northern hemisphere, then answered questions from those at the viewing end. During the late winter and early spring of 1961, I was vaguely aware that the questions often had to do with the weather in and around Cuba. I gave the matter little thought. I failed to sense a political earthquake was about to occur.

Only after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion on the 17th of April 1961 did I connect the dots. Despite the initial denial by President Kennedy that the invasion was a US undertaking —initially it was blamed entirely on unaided Cuban exiles — I knew the Navy had played a role in it, including even my tiny unit. The day and timing of beach landings are best planned with an eye on the weather.

T9 – JF Kennedy

To his credit, within days Kennedy reversed his initial denial, regretting what had happened and admitting that the invasion was planned, organized and funded by the CIA with US military involvement. JFK, only a few months into his presidency, had given the invasion its go-ahead.

In that period of my life I was profoundly naïve about the US role in the world. It never occurred to me that my government would undermine or seek to overthrow other governments. “Regime change” was not part of our political vocabulary. I knew nothing about the US role in arranging regime change in Guatemala, Iran and other countries. For all the nation’s flaws and unsolved problems, for all my ideas of how it could be better, I was passionately proud to be an American.

T10 – JFK – screen shot Bay of Pigs

US culpability for the Bay of Pigs invasion hit me like a torpedo. I felt implicated in a collective sin. When I read in The Washington Post that pacifist groups, including the Catholic Worker, were holding a daily silent protest in front of a CIA building in southwest Washington, I made up my mind to take part. It turned out to be a life-changing decision.

T11 – There is no way to peace graphic

After work and out of uniform, I joined twenty or so people carrying placards that bore such texts as “There is no way to peace — peace is the way” and “Nonviolence or Non-survival.” The climate of the silent protest was prayerful. I had no sense that I was putting myself or my job in the Navy at risk. As I say, I was naïve. Freedom of speech, freedom to dissent and freedom to protest peacefully were principles at the core of American identity. I took it for granted that those rights belonged to everyone, those in military service included.

I noticed several men in gray suits on the other side of a fence methodically taking photos of us — it amused me that they were using cameras with long telephoto lenses. No one in the demonstration would have objected to close-up photos. Any of us would have been quite willing to identify ourselves and explain why we were there.

A few days later I was summoned to the office of Captain Cox, our unit’s commanding officer, and found him so angry that his neck muscles were rigid and his hands shook. He had a hard time assembling a sentence. On his desk was a glossy eight-by-ten photo of the demonstration. I was clearly visible. “Is this you?” he asked. “Yes,” I answered. “How dare you! How dare you give support to enemies of the United States?” “I wasn’t supporting any enemies,” I replied, “I was protesting the invasion of Cuba.” Captain Cox was speechless. Previously he and I had enjoyed an excellent relationship, but after that day the only communication we had was when he handed me a letter from the Office of Naval Intelligence ordering me to report for an interview.

In preparation for that meeting I was required to fill out a security questionnaire. One of the questions was: “Is there any circumstance under which you would deem yourself unable to perform the duties which you may be called upon to take?” I read the question with dread, realizing that I could not find a way to give an honest answer that would be acceptable to the Navy.

T12 – Jiminy Cricket – conscience be your guide

Getting back to my base along the Potomac, I went to the Catholic chapel to pray, read the New Testament, and think. I must have remained there until midnight. For months I had been aware that the serious application of Catholicism’s just war doctrine would condemn any modern war if only because noncombatants had become war’s main casualties. Also how could anyone, in or out of the military, promise automatic obedience to each and every future order sight unseen? I thought of the many Germans who justified their obedience to the demonic demands of the Hitler regime with the words: “I was only following orders” or “I was only obeying the law.” I thought of Anne Frank and the Holocaust and all the obedient civilians and soldiers who played a part in herding millions of people to their deaths. But at the same time I was apprehensive about what would happen to me if I failed to commit myself to unqualified obedience? What would my colleagues think? How would they treat me? I was wading in fear, struggling not to drown in it.

I remembered the simple wisdom of a Russian proverb I had memorized as a child while contemplating the Family of Man photo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York: “Eat bread and salt and speak the truth.”

T13 – bread & salt proverb

Those eight words were a breath of fresh air. It was a relief to realize that my task was simply to tell the truth and let the consequences take care of themselves. Finally I composed this four-sentence paragraph:

“I would have to refuse to obey any order or fulfill any duty which I considered to be immoral, contrary to my conscience or in opposition to the teaching of my Church…. It is highly conceivable that there are duties that would be imposed on me during war time which I could not accept. Though I would participate in the actual and just defense of our country, I would not assist in any attack or war effort which necessarily involved the death of innocent non-combatants. I would obey no order in conflict with my convictions.”

There is no need for me to tell the rest of the story in detail, only to say that not many days later, following a long and threatening interview with two officers of the Naval Intelligence Service, I filed for early discharge on the grounds of conscientious objection to war. In early June my discharge was approved. The day that I was “processed out” I was on my way, at Dorothy Day’s invitation, to become part of the Catholic Worker community in New York — a big step that reshaped the rest of my life. I was happy as a falcon in an updraft. Before sunset that same day, I arrived at 175 Chrystie Street, the location in that period of St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality.

T14 – CW 175 Chrystie Street 1961

I had turned a major corner. I had enjoyed my work in at the Weather Service and had appreciated my Navy co-workers, but I had gotten to the point in my religious awakening of wanting the works of mercy rather that the works of war to shape my life.

One of the results of joining the Catholic Worker was spending the most formative segment of my life participating in a community whose day centered mainly on homeless people.

T15 – Dorothy Day portrait

The leader of the community was Dorothy Day, then in her mid-sixties. I couldn’t have chosen a better mentor. If you haven’t yet done so, I urge you to read her autobiography, The Long Loneliness.

In it she relates how she had been radicalized in her teens mainly thanks to her reading. It was Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle, that inspired her, at age fifteen, to explore parts of Chicago that most of her neighbors avoided — the slums surrounding the city’s stockyards and slaughterhouses. The novel’s depiction of filth, violence and corruption in the meat industry so shocked its readers that the book is given credit for Congressional passage of tough meat inspection laws, although Sinclair had hoped to stimulate more profound social change. His intention had been, he said, to expose “the inferno of exploitation” endured by factory workers. “I aimed at the public’s heart,” he commented, “and by accident hit it in the stomach.”

But Sinclair’s book reached Dorothy’s heart. She began taking long walks toward the west side of Chicago where the meat yards were. Pushing her brother in his baby carriage, she walked for miles, exploring “interminable gray streets, fascinating in their dreary sameness, past tavern after tavern, where I envisioned such scenes as the Polish wedding party in Sinclair’s story.”

These walks were Dorothy’s first experience of finding beauty in the midst of urban desolation. “There were tiny flower gardens and vegetable patches in the yards,” she recalled. “Often there were rows of corn, stunted but still recognizable, a few tomato plants, and always the vegetables were bordered by flowers, often grateful marigolds, all sizes and shades with their pungent odor.” The drab streets were transfigured by “the odor of geranium leaves, tomato plants, marigolds; the smell of lumber, of tar, of roasting coffee; the smell of good bread and rolls and coffee cake coming from the small German bakeries. Here was enough beauty to satisfy me.”

Walking such streets, she pondered the poor and the workers and felt “that from then on my life was to be linked to theirs, their interests were to be mine: I had received a call, a vocation, a direction in my life.” Her journey led her to become both a radical journalist and a Catholic. In her mid-thirties she became co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement.

Dorothy touched countless lives, mine among them. For me, she was also the bridge to several other life-shaping relationships. Thanks to Dorothy, I began what became an intense relationship with Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and writer, whose autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, had been a factor in my becoming a conscientious objector.

T16 – Thomas Merton

Within a few months Merton became a kind of spiritual parent. In the seven years I knew him, I visited him twice and he sent me more than 60 letters.

Merton had enormous influence of the way my life and work developed, an influence that continues to this day even though it’s now fifty years since his death. There was no other person with whom I had so frequent a correspondence when I was in my twenties.

T17 – Henri Nouwen

One thing always leads to another. Several years after Merton’s death, I had the blessing of meeting Henri Nouwen, a relationship that grew into a deep friendship that lasted until his death in 1996. That relationship began in 1971, when Henri, at the time a complete stranger, called with the invitation to speak about Merton to his students at Yale. He wanted them not just to read Merton books but have some idea what Merton was like as a person. I began going to Yale every year.

T18 – Dan Berrigan and Jim Forest

Another person I first met thanks to Dorothy was Daniel Berrigan, a poet and Jesuit priest. Toward the end of 1961, Dorothy brought me with her to a small gathering with Dan. Dan was then leading a quiet academic life at a small Jesuit college in upstate New York. One couldn’t have imagined that, before the decade was over, Dan would be one of the most prominent opponents of war, have his face on the cover of Time magazine, and spend several months on the FBI’s ten-most-wanted list! It didn’t happen overnight, but Dan and I became friends and until his death just two years ago. My latest book is a biography of him.

Four mentors. Each of them is an icon of protest but each of them approached protest in quite different ways.

T19 – photo of Dorothy’s last arrest

Dorothy’s acts of civil disobedience were simplicity itself — such quiet gestures as sitting on a park bench when law required her to be elsewhere, or taking part with farmworkers in a demonstration that police regarded as illegal.

T20 – nuclear submarine

For Henri, not at all a protester by nature, his going to Selma, Alabama to join in a dangerous protest against racism or quietly standing outside a plant where nuclear-missile-bearing submarines were being made were significant, even brave, acts of witness even, though no civil disobedience was involved.

T21 – Catonsville Nine

In contrast, there was Dan’s theatrical approach — setting draft records set on fire, battering the cones of nuclear missiles with hammers — in which serious jail time was an almost certain consequence.

T21a – Merton & Dan together Nov 1964

Thomas Merton, on the other hand, committed no acts of civil disobedience and spent not a single night of his life in a prison cell, but through his writing  changed the way countless people viewed the world and what it meant to be a human being and a Christian.

The differences among these four remarkable persons remind us that each peacemaker is unique. Each makes a transformative use of his or her temperament, talents, vocation, background and circumstances. Expand the circle of models wider and instance by instance our understanding of peacemaking expands with it. Who is a peacemaker? Anyone who is acting peaceably to protect life and the environment.

T21b – high school dropout cartoon

Let me conclude my part of this morning’s session by confessing my academic shortcomings. I never got past my junior year in high school. The only institution of higher learning I’ve graduated from was the Navy Weather School. It was my intention to get an undergraduate degree — I was all set to attend Berea College in Kentucky — but attending to the war in Vietnam seemed more urgent. I sometimes claim to be a permanent undergraduate at Dorothy Day University but you will not find its address even with the most thorough google search. I sometimes regret that I never had time to attend a university with its own campus and library but I recover quickly from that disappointment, for what God has given me has been attendance of a different sort of academy, an athenaeum of mentors. I’ve benefitted from more than four members of its faculty, not only Dorothy Day, Merton, Henri Nouwen and Dan Berrigan, but these are the four I want to concentrate on today.

There’s an afternoon session coming up in which I hope to talk about seven things I learned from these four remarkable peacemakers.

T22 – whole earth photo

* * * * * * *

Second session…

Start with T22 – whole earth photo

Good afternoon!

Now allow me to shift gears. Instead of talking more about personal events that made the themes of this conference so central in my life, let me instead tell you about what I learned from these four mentors: Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen and Daniel Berrigan.

Let’s start with love:

At the absolute core of Christ’s teaching is the commandment to love God and to love our neighbor, not one or the other but both, with the understanding that our neighbor is whoever is standing in front of us, and that sometimes turns out to be our enemy — someone we would rather avoid, maybe someone we even wish were dead.

T23 – Christ icon

All the people who have helped me see the way ahead in my own life put great stress on love, with a special emphasis on love of enemies.

The key word is love.

“Peacemaking is the work of love,” as Henri put it very simply.

To understand love of others, including love of irritating neighbors and dangerous adversaries and politicians who make our blood boil, you first need to unsentimentalize the word. You have to understand love in its biblical meaning. For Jesus love is not a feeling. Love is not an inebriating emotional high or rejoicing in an intense romantic relationship. Love is how you relate to others, no matter how you happen to be feeling at a particular moment. You don’t stop caring for others  that is, doing what you can to help keep them alive  because you’re tired or don’t feel like it or are having a bad day.

T24 – parent with crying child

Think of an exhausted parent awoken at three in the morning by a crying infant who, even after being held and fed, its diaper changed, carried and stroked and rocked and sung to, refuses to stop crying. It’s not a time when one feels grateful for the child or glad to be a parent. Ignoring irritated feelings, you do what is needed and do it gently and patiently. This is an image of actual love.

Love can get you into serious trouble. One of the profoundly radical ideas that all four of my mentors had in common was that, if you want to work at being a Christian and taking up Christ’s commandment to love, for starters it means not killing anyone, enemies included, and not even in your heart-of-hearts wishing them dead.

T25 – Bethlehem Christmas card

Jesus was not a romantic. He didn’t live in a Christmas-card world. He did not look at the world through rose-colored glasses. He did not lead an insulated life. He was no stranger to enmity. Probably there was no Jew in those days who hadn’t seem a naked man nailed to a cross and slowly dying. From his birth onward, Jesus lived a life of daily proximity to mortal enemies, yet he never threatened or endangered anyone’s life. But that doesn’t mean he was passive.

T26 – Jesus chasing moneychangers out of the Temple

For example he once chased moneychangers out of the Temple in Jerusalem, but the only person’s life he put at risk in doing so was his own. If you see Christ as giving clues regarding the sort of person you would like to become, then not only will you not kill anyone but you will seriously try to love them and even be prepared to die for them. One of Dan Berrigan’s most striking declarations was: “If you want to be a Christian, you had better look good on wood.”

Love doesn’t exclude outrage. Love and outrage are sometimes as woven together as a strand of DNA. Dan’s many acts of civil disobedience were animated by, as he put it “outraged love.” For Dan “outrage” was an adjective; the key word was “love.” Love opens the way for conversion. But outrage without love is a blind alley.

We live in a time when there is far more outrage than love. So many zones in social media are sewers of outrage.

T27 – social media

But love clears the air.

“Our job,” Merton wrote, “is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business. What we are asked to do is to love and this love will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy, if anything can.”

Second point — War is a disease that thrives on death:

The real enemy we’re up against, as St Paul stresses in his letter to the Ephesians, isn’t flesh and blood and can’t be killed with weapons that shed blood. Our real enemy isn’t a particular person or group of people but structures and ideologies that inspire deadly violence, with war itself at the top of the list.

T28 – Catholic Worker front page Oct 1961

In “The Root of War Is Fear,” an essay published in the October 1961 issue of The Catholic Worker, Thomas Merton saw Christians as playing an important role in seeking alternatives to war. At the time, nuclear war seemed around the corner, something that could happen today or tomorrow.

“The duty of the Christian in this crisis,” Merton wrote, “is to strive with all his power and intelligence, with his faith, his hope in Christ, and love for God and man, to do the one task which God has imposed upon us in the world today. That task is to work for the total abolition of war. There can be no question that unless war is abolished the world will remain constantly in a state of madness and desperation in which, because of the immense destructive power of modern weapons, the danger of catastrophe will be imminent and probable at every moment everywhere. Unless we set ourselves immediately to this task, both as individuals and in our political and religious groups, we tend by our very passivity and fatalism to cooperate with the destructive forces that are leading inexorably to war.”

T29 – Dr Strangelove – the War Room

Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film, “Doctor Strangelove, Or How I Learned Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” was a black comedy that was probably a factor in preventing nuclear war in those days.

Merton, Dorothy Day and Dan Berrigan helped me realize that war itself is the main enemy of the human race and of the planet we live on. Peacemakers are engaged in a war against war, with the goal not that war should be made less frequent or less murderous or more humane but that war should be eliminated. War should be made unthinkable. Otherwise all of us are losers. As Merton put it, “There is only one winner in war. The winner is war itself. Not truth, not justice, not liberty, not morality. These are the vanquished.”

Third point — we need to use nonviolent methods:

Seeking a nonviolent future, of necessity the means we use are nonviolent for the methods we use define the ends we achieve. If you plant poison ivy you don’t get a harvest of strawberries. We battle evil as best we can, using nonviolent methods rather than copying the deadly methods of our enemies. As Dr King said, “Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the person who wields it. It is a sword that heals.”

T30 – ML King at March on Washington

“What are we to do?” was the core question Merton raised in the pages of The Catholic Worker. In his essay “The Root of War is Fear,” he argued that the Church “must lead the way on the road to the nonviolent settlement of difficulties and toward the gradual abolition of war as the way of settling international or civil disputes. Christians must become active in every possible way, mobilizing all their resources for the fight against war. First of all there is much to be studied, much to be learned. Peace is to be preached, nonviolence is to be explained as a practical method…. Prayer and sacrifice must be used as the most effective spiritual weapons in the war against war, and like all weapons, they must be used with deliberate aim: not just with a vague aspiration for peace and security, but against violence and war. This implies that we are also willing to sacrifice and restrain our own instinct for violence and aggressiveness in our relations with other people…. [The abolition of war] is the great Christian task of our time. Everything else is secondary, for the survival of the human race itself depends upon it. We must at least face this responsibility and do something about it.”

Let’s quietly just take a look at a few images of nonviolent resistance….

T31 – man vs tanks

Sometimes it’s a brave spontaneous action — a Chinese man with a shopping bag stopping a column of tanks.

T32 – nonviolent protest – civil rights picket line

Or it’s a carefully planned demonstration like this picket line against segregation

T33 – nonviolent protest – flowers in gun barrel

Or a symbolic gesture, like this university student putting a flower in a soldier’s rifle barrel.

T34 – Standing Rock

Or not just gathering for a day or two but living on threatened land.

We could spend the day looking at countless similar photos. Nonviolent action is not only changing history but changing us.

Unlikely people often play key roles in history. Thomas Merton, who became one of the most articulate advocates of nonviolence, had become a monk in December 1941 just as many others, his brother John Paul among them, were putting on military uniforms. Merton, who in his early days of monastic life thought he was saying goodbye to the world and all its madnesses, came to see his life as a monk as an ongoing act of implicit nonviolent protest.

T35 – Merton walking the woods

Far from being an escape from the world, Merton wrote, it was through fidelity to his monastic vocation that he was able to take his true part “in all the struggles and sufferings of the world. To adopt a life that is essentially non-assertive, a nonviolent life of humility and peace, is in itself a statement of one’s position…. It is my intention to make my entire life a rejection of, a protest against the crimes and injustices of war and political tyranny which threaten to destroy the whole race of man and the world with him…. By my monastic life and vows I am saying no to all the concentration camps, the aerial bombardments, the staged political trials, the judicial murders, the racial injustices, the economic tyrannies, and the whole socio-economic apparatus which seems geared for nothing but global destruction in spite of all its fair words in favor of peace. I make monastic silence a protest against the lies of politicians, propagandists and agitators, and when I speak it is to deny that my faith and my Church can ever seriously be aligned with these forces of injustice and destruction.”

T36 – Selma march

In slow steps, Henri Nouwen and Dan Berrigan had also decided on nonviolence both as a way of life and a method of combatting social evils. In 1965 Henri and Dan, both as yet strangers to each other and both in the early stages of social engagement, put their lives on the line by going to Selma, Alabama, to join Martin Luther King and eight thousand others in crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, its pavement still bloodstained from the police attack on civil rights demonstrators just two weeks before.

T37 – Dorothy at the park bench sit-in

Dorothy Day, on the other hand, was first drawn to raise a dissenting voice while still in her teens. She was nineteen when she was jailed after taking part in a votes-for-women action in front of the White House and was involved in many acts of nonviolent protest in the decades that followed. My personal favorite action of hers was a quiet gesture made in Manhattan in 1955 when, with a few pacifist friends, she sat on a park bench in front of City Hall rather than participate, as required by law, in a civil defense drill in which the city came to a standstill while everyone was obliged to seek shelter — in subway stations, under classroom desks, in basements — from an imaginary Soviet nuclear attack. A Catholic Worker leaflet declared, “We will not be drilled into fear.” Dorothy saw such rehearsals as making nuclear war seem survivable and even winnable. For her, refusing to take shelter was also “an act of penance” undertaken by an American whose country “had been the first to drop the atom bomb and to make the hydrogen bomb.” From 1961 to 1962, after which no more such drills occurred, Dorothy was repeatedly arrested and jailed for refusing to take shelter. The judge in one instance, himself a Catholic, advised Dorothy to read the Bible. Imposing a thirty-day sentence, he said that those who disobeyed the law were a “heartless bunch of individuals who breathe contempt.”

T38 – napalmed child Vietnam

Thirty days in jail isn’t that much. Nonviolent actions can sometimes be more dramatic and risk greater penalties. Dan Berrigan is best remembered for being one of nine people who burned draft records — files his brother Phil referred to as “death certificates” — as a protest against the Vietnam War and forced participation in it. America’s young men were being given the option of going to war or going to prison. In the course of his long life — he died only two years ago, age 94 — Dan wrote about sixty books of prose and poetry, but his single most famous piece of writing is a two-page text he composed to explain their action. It begins, “Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children, the angering of the orderlies in the front parlor of the charnel house. We could not, so help us God, do otherwise. For we are sick at heart. Our hearts give us no rest for thinking of the Land of Burning Children…”

My fourth point — the importance of prayer:

Another core element in the life of my principal mentors was the role of prayer in their lives.

At the Catholic Worker we paused several times each day to pray together using booklets that has been given to us by a Benedictine monastery. Priests such as Dan Berrigan celebrated Mass for the community. Henri celebrated Mass in his apartment and, when students and friends came for a social gathering, started it off with prayer.

One of the Sioux participants in the long-running Standing Rock protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline emphasized how essential prayer was to their activities, adding, “Prayers don’t work in the sense that what you ask for will just be given to you, but when you pray for something, all the tools you need will be presented to you.”

T39 – Rembrandt Emmaus etching

In his etching of the risen Christ being recognized as he breaks bread in the village of Emmaus, Rembrandt makes prayer almost visible.

In his book Peacework, Henri sees prayer as an essential element in the life of any peacemaker. “Prayer,” he writes, “is entering into communion with the One who molded our being in our mother’s womb with love and only love. There, in that first love, lies our true self, a self not made up of the rejections and acceptances of those with whom we live, but solidly rooted in the One who called us into existence. In the house of God we were created. To that house we are called to return. Prayer is the act of returning…. Only by opening ourselves to the language and way of prayer can we cope with the interruptions, demands, and ordinary tasks of life without becoming fragmented and resentful. Prayer — [that is] living in the presence of God — is the most radical peace action we can imagine.”

T40 – bread for the eucharist

Among the great joys of friendship with Dan Berrigan was joining him in the celebration of the Mass. His small apartment became a chapel. The style of our bread-breaking was as simple and graceful in line as a Shaker chair. A prayer for forgiveness was followed by intercession for friends who were ill or in difficulty. Those taking part took turns reading the appointed texts for the day plus perhaps a supplementary reading from a more-or-less modern source. After the readings, silence. Then some reflection on the readings. More silence. Then a simple canon prayer, the prayer of consecration. More silence. Finally, after the unspectacular miracle of consecration, came the sharing in that quiet miracle, and more silence, perhaps some more prayer, and an embrace at the end. Everything we achieved in our struggles to help build a less violent world was founded on this eucharistic bedrock.

I have nearly identical memories of time spent with Henri. I recall the pile of small prayer books behind a chair in his living room at New Haven, ready to distribute when friends assembled. Every social gathering he hosted began with prayer.

T41 – Dorothy Day in prayer

I have never known anyone more disciplined in her spiritual life than Dorothy Day — daily Mass, daily rosary, times of private prayer and intercession each day, weekly confession. How often I saw her on her knees at a nearby parish church or at the chapel at the Catholic Worker farm. I noticed that while praying she often consulted pieces of paper that were tucked into her prayer book. One afternoon, Dorothy having been summoned from the Catholic Worker farm chapel for an urgent phone call, I opened the prayer book she had left on the bench and discovered page after page of names, all written in her careful script, of people, living and dead, for whom she was praying every day. It seemed to me Dorothy prayed as if lives depended on it, and no doubt some did. The physician Robert Coles of the Harvard Medical School credited Dorothy’s prayers with the miraculous cure of his wife. She had been dying of cancer but — to his astonishment and to the bewilderment of her physicians — she recovered. He credited Dorothy for what seemed to him a miracle.

Fifth point — compassion:

When I think back on the huge peace movement that emerged during the Vietnam War, the last period of sustained massive multi-national protest against racism and war, there was a great deal we got right but also some negatives. One of our major problems was a widespread lack of compassion toward our adversaries.

T43 – Vietnam war protest in DC in 1969

My wife recalls a huge demonstration in Washington, DC, in November 1969, the one time in her life that she got tear-gassed. I wasn’t there — I was in prison at the time — but the vivid stories she tells make me feel as if I were present. Hundreds of thousands of protesters, many of them students, brought the city to a standstill. Nixon himself, from the basement of the White House, directed the club-fisted response of the police and the National Guard. It was a great demonstration, an event dramatizing a gap between generations that was widening day by day. The only problem was the climate of derision toward the war’s supporters. One of the popular chants that day was aimed at Vice President Spiro Agnew — “Shave and a haircut, shampoo! Spiro Agnew, fuck you!” The chant was funny for those who sympathized. The only problem was that rude chants like that thickened the walls between the war’s opponents and all those people, millions of them, who had voted for Nixon and Agnew.

Self-righteousness and contempt — these are problems every dissident movement has to struggle with. Are we trying to change people’s minds or, by ridiculing them, to harden them in their anger-driven sentiments?

The problem becomes even more immediate when we look at social media today — or in fact what is often anti-social media in which words and slogans are exchanged like hand grenades. How often what might have become dialogue is instead trashing and shaming each other. The results of such exchanges are never healing or mind-changing.

Merton focused on temptations and spiritual problems that people like myself — people in mass movements — have to struggle with. There is always the danger in any movement, he wrote, of its participants becoming zealots, thus losing contact with their conscience and their own perceptions and instead being carried along by group-defined attitudes and ideology in which critical thought is supplanted by slogans, rhetoric and peer group pressure.

If the flattening influence of slogans and ideology was one problem, Merton found that the absence of compassion crippled many protest actions. Those involved in protest tend to become enraged with those they see as being responsible for injustice and violence and even toward those who uphold the status quo. Without compassion, Merton pointed out, the protester tends to become more and more driven by anger and, far from contributing to anyone’s conversion, can easily become an obstacle to changing the attitudes of others.

T44 – protester offering flower to soldier at anti-war demo

As Merton put it in one letter to me, “We have to have a deep patient compassion for the fears of others, for the fears and irrational mania of those who hate or condemn us…. [These are, after all] the ordinary people, the ones who don’t want war, the ones who get it in the neck, the ones who really want to build a decent new world in which there will not be war and starvation.”

A great many people, Merton pointed out, are irritated or frightened by agitation even when it protests something — militarism, nuclear weapons, social injustice — which objectively endangers them. “[People] do not feel at all threatened by the bomb … but they feel terribly threatened by some … student carrying a placard.”

Without love, especially love of opponents and enemies, no profound transformation ? neither personal nor social ? can occur. As Merton put it in a letter to Dorothy Day, “Persons are not known by intellect alone, not by principles alone, but only by love. It is when we love the other, the enemy, that we obtain from God the key to an understanding of who he is, and who we are. It is only this realization that can open to us the real nature of our duty, and of right action.”

T45 – Peacework book cover

Henri thought along parallel lines. As he wrote in his book Peacework: “I have become increasingly aware of the temptation to focus more on issues than on people. But when our peace work is primarily issue-oriented it easily loses heart and becomes cold, calculating, and very impersonal. When we fight for issues and no longer see concrete people with their unique personalities and histories, competition will dominate compassion and winning the issue may mean losing the people. There are endless problems in the world — poverty, oppression, exploitation, corruption — that urgently beg for solutions. But people are not problems. They smile and cry, work and play, struggle and celebrate. They have names and faces to be remembered.”

Sixth point — seeing:

If anyone was a teacher of seeing it was Henri Nouwen. Henri was one of the people — Merton and Dorothy were others — who opened my eyes to icons, Christianity’s primary art form in the Church, east and west, during the first fourteen or fifteen centuries, and still the main art form of eastern Christianity. As a young adult I had viewed icons simply as the church’s kindergarten art, not to be compared with the masterpieces of the Renaissance. Slowly I began to realize that icons are a school of seeing.

T46 – Rublev Holy Trinity icon

A turning point in my appreciation of icons was the gift Henri gave Nancy and me when we were married — a reproduction of the so-called “Holy Trinity” icon painted by the monk Andrei Rublev in the sixteenth century.

I vividly recall sitting at Henri’s side as he explored, with childlike enthusiasm, the icon’s every detail. It was, he explained, inspired by Abraham and Sara’s hospitality to the mysterious guests they received under the oak of Mamre, a story told in Genesis. Throughout the Genesis account, the three angelic guests act in perfect unity and speak with one voice. They are both guests, plural, and also guest, singular; they are both one and three. It’s the first biblical hint of the Holy Trinity. Henri remarked on the utterly submissive, sister-like faces of the three angelic figures, each inclined toward the other in a silent dialogue of self-giving love. He commented on their profound stillness, yet their warmth and vitality. Then we looked at the colors Andrei Rublev had chosen, though I later discovered that even the best reproduction can only hint at what Rublev had actually achieved, as I was to see for myself when I first visited the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. Henri traced the circle of perfect unity that subtly, invisibly contains the three angels. Then he traced a cross within the circle and then the trinitarian triangle it also contained. All this quiet geometry reveals key elements of the icon’s theology, yet none of it is heavy-handed. Then there is the table around which the three figures are placed — the eucharistic altar with golden chalice. Above the three figures are three objects: a house with an open door, a tree, and a mountain. The open-doored building on the upper left is both the Church and a house of hospitality. For Henri the Holy Trinity icon was an icon of “the house of love” — the Church as God intends it to be, the doors of which are never closed and which have no locks. The tree in the center is the Tree of Life and also the Life-giving Cross. The mountain is the both Mount Sinai and the Mount of the Beatitudes. Really seeing the icon reveals the communion of love which is at the heart of God’s unity.

T47 – Van Gogh – Night Café

I also recall being with Henri at the art museum at Yale and looking with him at a Van Gogh painting, “The Night Café,” a place he frequented in Arles. Henri’s acute attentiveness to this study of nightlife in a small town was contagious. He was so open to the painting, so wide-eyed, that he made me look at it more slowly. The painting’s beauty became a sacramental reality. But to get to that graced place one has to do much more than glance.

For Henri one of life’s most important questions was: “What do we really choose to see?” Who we see and who we fail to see marks the border of both our spiritual and political life.

T48 – refugee children

In his book Behold the Beauty of the Lord, Henri stresses that it is a matter of enormous importance what we look at and how we look at it. He writes:

“It makes a great difference whether we see a flower or a snake, a gentle smile or menacing teeth, a dancing couple or a hostile crowd. We do have a choice. Just as we are responsible for what we eat, so we are responsible for what we see. It is easy to become a victim of the vast array of visual stimuli surrounding us. The ‘powers and principalities’ control many of our daily images. Posters, billboards, television, videos, movies and store windows continuously assault our eyes and inscribe their images upon our memories. We do not have to be passive victims of a world that wants to entertain and distract us. We can make decisions and choices. A spiritual life in the midst of our energy-draining society requires us to take conscious steps to safeguard that inner space where we can keep our eyes fixed on the beauty of the Lord.”

T49 – beggar

Henri proposed a theology of seeing, or of gazing. Gazing was the verb he preferred. To really see something, to see with deep attentiveness, to become aware of its mystery and beauty — this puts it in a truly awake state. This is most important when we are looking at a human face. It is not that often that we really look at each other. Henri appreciated what St John Chrysostom said in a sermon on the eucharist: “If you fail to recognize Christ in the beggar outside the church, you will not find him in the chalice.”

T50 – slums lower east side

Dorothy Day also had a talent for seeing what many others overlooked. I recall an experience I had with Dorothy when she was in her early sixties.  Her knees were troubling her — she was having increasing trouble climbing the five flights to her apartment on Spring Street. A small apartment in a similar tenement on Ridge Street was rented for her. It was only one flight up but was in appalling condition. A friend and I went down to clean and paint the two rooms. We dragged box after box of debris down to the street, many layers of wallpaper and linoleum and lots of trash, including what seemed to us a hideous painting of the Holy Family — Mary, Joseph and Jesus rendered in a few bright colors against a grey background on a piece of plywood. We shook our heads, deposited it in the rubbish along the curb, and went back to our labor. Not long after Dorothy arrived, the painting in hand. “Look what I found! The Holy Family! It’s a providential sign, a blessing.” She put it on the mantle of the apartment’s bricked-up fireplace. Looking at it again, this time I saw it was a work of love. While this primitive icon was no masterpiece, the ardent faith of its maker shined through. It had a certain beauty. But I wouldn’t have seen it if Dorothy hadn’t seen it first.

T51 – Christ of the breadlines – Eichenberg

Dorothy’s view was no longer that of so many people she knew who regarded the poor as shiftless and worthless, whose sufferings were no one’s fault but their own. Walking such streets as a fifteen-year-old, she pondered the poor and the workers and felt “that from then on my life was to be linked to theirs, their interests were to be mine: I had received a call, a vocation, a direction in my life.”

A seventh and final point. Let me say something about detachment:

Ironically, the harder we try to be effective in our work, the more important it becomes not to over-identify ourselves with our work and its achievements.

T52 – cathedral construction

You need a cathedral builder’s frame of mind. Churches like Notre Dame and Chartres took a long time to build. The first generation saw little more than the laying of the foundations. Sometimes there were fires or towers collapsed and much of the work had to be done over. It was the grandchildren or great grandchildren who got to take part in constructing the roof.

Here’s how Merton put it in a letter to me, written at a time when he was aware I was on the edge of total burn-out:

“Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.

T53 – medieval image of cathedral construction

“You are fed up with words, and I don’t blame you. I am nauseated by them sometimes. I am also, to tell the truth, nauseated by ideals and with causes. This sounds like heresy, but I think you will understand what I mean. It is so easy to get engrossed with ideas and slogans and myths that in the end one is left holding the bag, empty, with no trace of meaning left in it. And then the temptation is to yell louder than ever in order to make the meaning be there again by magic. Going through this kind of reaction helps you to guard against this. Your system is complaining of too much verbalizing, and it is right.

“The big results are not in your hands or mine, but they suddenly happen, and we can share in them; but there is no point in building our lives on this personal satisfaction, which may be denied us and which after all is not that important.

“The next step in the process is for you to see that your own thinking about what you are doing is crucially important. You are probably striving to build yourself an identity in your work, out of your work and your witness. You are using it, so to speak, to protect yourself against nothingness, annihilation. That is not the right use of your work. All the good that you will do will come not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God’s love. Think of this more, and gradually you will be free from the need to prove yourself, and you can be more open to the power that will work through you without your knowing it.

T54 – whole earth photo

Summing up, Merton added:

“The great thing after all is to live, not to pour out your life in the service of a myth: and we turn the best things into myths. If you can get free from the domination of causes and just serve Christ’s truth, you will be able to do more and will be less crushed by the inevitable disappointments. Because I see nothing whatever in sight but much disappointment, frustration and confusion …. The real hope, then, is not in something we think we can do but in God who is making something good out of it in some way we cannot see. If we can do His will, we will be helping in this process. But we will not necessarily know all about it beforehand….”

To which I can only add, “Amen.”

* * *

For the presentation of Leven met Wijsheid, the Dutch translation of Living with Wisdom

For the presentation 24 March 2018, at Koningshoeven Abbey in North Brabant, of Leven met wijsheid, the Dutch translation of Living with Wisdom:


There have been a number of editions in various languages of my biographies of Thomas Merton but none has pleased me so much as the translation of Living with Wisdom into Leven met wijsheid. The reason is that, although I speak Dutch poorly, the Dutch-speaking region of Europe has become my much-appreciated home. I have been here forty-one years, well over half my life. Living a few centimeters above sea level in North Holland, so close to the North Sea that I can get to its shore by bicycle in less than an hour, was not a destiny I ever imagined for myself as a child studying globes and world maps and gazing at photos in National Geographic magazine. This land of polders, canals and sand dunes was not one of the environments that attracted me as a boy. My fantasies were of someday living in France, Italy, Spain, Greece or Great Britain, not the flat water-soaked delta that divine providence brought me to in 1977.

I came here to lead the staff of a Dutch-based peace organization, the International Fellowship of Reconciliation. For twelve years working for IFOR was my more-than-fulltime employment. By 1988, when I shifted to work as a writer and editor, our family had taken root in the Lowlands. In 1995, Nancy and I became Dutch citizens. In both our cases, it was a return to parts of our family roots. Nancy’s paternal grandparents had been born in Gelderland while one of my ancestors, Hendrik Hendrickson, was born in Utrecht in the late sixteenth century. Hendrickson was my mother’s maiden name and is my middle name. According to family legend, Hendrik Hendrickson was navigator of the Dutch ship, the Halve Maen, that sailed up the Hudson River in 1609. Later on he settled in Nieuw Amsterdam. His house stood next to the settlement’s wall at the southeast corner of what today is the intersection of Broadway and Wall Street. Probably it’s a great blessing we don’t still own that parcel of land. The New Testament doesn’t recommend wealth.

Thomas Merton moved with me to the Netherlands. He had become one of the major influences in my life since first reading The Seven Storey Mountain when I was eighteen. Though by necessity I had to leave quite a few books in America when I flew to Amsterdam, not one fragment of my Merton library was abandoned.

The work I was doing occasionally brought me to London, where I made it a habit to spend a little time during each visit at a remarkably beautiful and hospitable church, Westminster Cathedral. I loved its Byzantine mosaic decoration and its huge Stations of the Cross that had been carved by Eric Gill during the First World War. I loved its sung Masses. I loved its kindness to homeless street people. I also loved it as a place to confess my sins. There was no language barrier to navigate and there seemed to be a priest available in .one of the confessionals no matter the day or the hour.

One of the things one found in the adjacent cathedral bookshop was a rack full of booklets published by the Catholic Truth Society. These were inexpensive, well-written tracts on a wide variety of subjects — theology, liturgy, prayer, the sacraments, religious history and other topics. A good many were short biographies of saints or notable Catholics. Noticing that there was no booklet devoted to Thomas Merton, in 1978 or ’79 I decided to contact the Society’s editor, Brendan Walsh, and volunteer to fill the gap.

I felt reasonably well-suited to the task. I had been one of Merton’s frequent correspondents and occasional visitors the last seven years of his life, and I was a journalist as well. And it wasn’t, after all, a major undertaking. Most of the Society’s booklets were pocket-sized and brief — 24 to 32 pages — roughly two thousand words. So it was agreed. I was even offered a payment — fifty pounds on delivery, as I recall. As my salary was quite meagre, this made the project even more attractive.

And so I set to work. The only problem was that before I had gotten past Merton’s teenage years, I had already written at least a thousand words. I found myself trying to fit a Frisian cow into a confessional. I wrote to Brendan and raised a question: How about publishing a small book instead of a booklet? And, thinking like the lover of photography that I am, including some photos? I proposed as the title Thomas Merton: A Pictorial Biography.

Happily Brendan’s answer was a cheerful yes.

Then came the idea of making the book a trans-Atlantic project with a co-published edition in America. Don Brophy at Paulist Press quickly took to the idea and even suggested the book be designed by Emil Antonucci, whose work with Jubilee magazine, Commonweal and many publications by Merton’s close friend, Bob Lax, I greatly admired.

Meanwhile I had work to do. I recall with pleasure many nights, after the children had gone to bed, banging away on my beloved Hermes portable. “Banging” is indeed the word — even Swiss typewriters are noisy tools! I used the kitchen counter as my desk as it was the furthest point in the apartment from the kids’ room. They needed their sleep. Volumes of Merton were spread out left and right in that cramped space.

Thomas Merton: A Pictorial Biograph, my very first book, was published in the Fall of 1980. Exactly a hundred pages long, it offered the reader a compact overview of Merton’s life and was enriched by many marginal quotations from his writings. In mid-December I had the honor of presenting a copy to Pope John Paul II and was surprised to discover how familiar he was with Merton’s writing, thanks to Polish translations issued by John Paul’s own publisher. On that occasion I was accompanying my friend and colleague Adolfo Perez Esquivel who a few days before had received the Nobel Peace Prize for his human rights leadership in Latin America. It had been Adolfo’s decision to give John Paul this gift. He told the pope of the important role Merton had played in his own spiritual formation.

That first book marked a turning point in my life, launching me into a late vocation as a writer. Since 1980, there have been more than twenty books — books on the basic teachings of Jesus, religious imagery and iconography, pilgrimage, confession, and overcoming enmity. There have been two books on religious life in Soviet Russia in the USSR’s last few years, and a book on the resurrection of religious life in post-Communist Albania. I’ve also written two other biographies, one of Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day and one about Daniel Berrigan. Not least, there have been five children’s books.

In 1989, after the Paulist edition of the Merton biography had gone out of print, Robert Ellsberg of Orbis Books suggested I write a new, expanded edition. The content was so changed that the book got a new title, Living with Wisdom. And then, in 2008, a revised and substantially enlarged edition of Living with Wisdom was issued by Orbis that drew on Merton’s hitherto closed private journals and correspondence. It’s the Dutch translation of this third edition we’re celebrating today, a book that would not exist had it not been for the Dutch-Flemish Merton society, Mertonvrienden, and especially Willy Eurlings, who may now know the book better than I do. Married as I am to a translator and counting a number of translators among our friends, I know what a special skill good translation is. It’s a fortunate author whose work is converted into another language by the right person.

Meanwhile I’ve had one more Merton book to write, The Root of War is Fear: Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers. Published two years ago, it focuses on the contribution Merton made during his last decade in helping prevent nuclear war, articulating a theology and praxis of peacemaking, and giving spiritual guidance to peace activists like myself.

To sum up: The major goal of my several Merton biographies has been to present a reasonably complete portrait of a complex, multifaceted and yet integrated man. His engagements and interests, not to mention his talents, were so numerous: writer, poet, monk, hermit, artist, photographer, teacher, scholar, translator, correspondent, journal keeper, editor, friend, spiritual guide, environmentalist, explorer of other religious traditions, monastic beatnik, voice of socially engaged Christianity, and mystic… And this is not a complete list. The challenge has been to try to show how all these strands are woven into a harmonious whole and at the same time allow Merton to speak for himself.

Though Merton is now half a century in his grave, his writings remain fresher and more timely than today’s newspaper. My sense is Merton is someone many Dutch readers will find worthwhile and challenging.

Willy Eurlings asked me to add to these remarks some comments about how I cme to meet Merton and what were my first impressions.

It was thanks to Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, that I came into personal contact with Merton. Knowing I had read several Merton books, Dorothy began to share with me the occasional letters she received from him. One day in the summer of 1961 she gave me a letter of his to answer. He had sent her a poem about Auschwitz and the Holocaust, “Chant to Be Used Around a Site for Furnaces.” Dorothy asked me to write to Father Louis, as she called him, letting him know of our appreciation of the poem and our plans to publish it in the next issue of The Catholic Worker. A few weeks later, she received another submission, this time an expanded version of a chapter, “The Root of War is Fear,” from the book he was then writing, New Seeds of Contemplation. It was an impassioned anti-war essay that, once in print, got Merton into a great deal of trouble within his order. Once again, Dorothy asked me to respond, letting Merton know it would be in our October issue.

Not many days later I had a response from Merton in which he noted that we live in a time of war and the need “to shut up and be humble and stay put and trust in God and hope for a peace that we can use for the good of our souls.” This proved to be the beginning of an intense correspondence between us that lasted the rest of Merton’s life.

In December, Merton suggested that perhaps I would like to come to the monastery for a visit. Traveling by thumb, a co-worker, Bob Kaye, and I set off for Kentucky early in February 1962. The going was slow. I recall standing in nighttime sleet at the side of a highway somewhere in Pennsylvania watching cars and trucks rush past, many of them with colorful plastic statues of an open-armed Jesus of the Sacred Heart on the dashboard. Sadly, this image of divine hospitality seemed to have little influence on those at the wheel behind the statue. It took us two-and-a-half exhausting days to travel the thousand miles to the Abbey of Gethsemani.

Finally we reached the monastery. After the Guest Master, Father Francis, showed us our rooms, my first stop was the monastery church, but my prayer was cut short by the sound of distant laughter so intense and pervasive that I couldn’t resist looking for its source. Laughter was the last thing I expected to hear at a penitential Trappist monastery.

The origin, I discovered, was Bob Kaye’s room. As I opened the door the laughter was still going on. The main source was the red-faced monk lying on the floor, wearing black and white robes and a broad leather belt, his knees in the air, hands clutching his belly. Though more well-fed than the broomstick thin Trappist monk I had imagined, I realized instantly that the man on the floor laughing with such abandon must be Thomas Merton. His face reminded me of photos of Pablo Picasso. The inspiration for the laughter? It proved to be the intensely smell of unwashed feet that had been kept in shoes all the way from the Manhattan to Gethsemani and were now out in the open air. If the Catholic Worker had manufactured a perfume, this would have been it.

After that week-long stay at Gethsemani, The Seven Storey Mountain became a different book. No wonder that Merton had twice mentioned the films of Charlie Chaplin in its pages.

The abbot, Dom James, though a most hospitable man, was not initially quite so positive about a visitation of ragged Catholic Workers. In those days most American men had frequent haircuts, but, as far as Bob and I were concerned, haircuts were a massive waste of money. Merton apologetically explained that our shaggy hair did not please the abbot. If we were to stay on at the abbey, Dom James insisted we have haircuts. Merton hoped we wouldn’t object. No problem, we replied. On our second morning at the abbey, we took it in turns to sit in a chair in the basement room where the novices changed into their work clothes. The room also served as a barber shop. While the novices stood in a circle laughing, a good deal of hair fell to the concrete floor. Going from one extreme to the other, Bob and I were suddenly nearly as bald as apples.

Not every monk appreciated Merton, I discovered. Merton and I were walking down a corridor that linked the guest house kitchen to the basement of the main building. There was a point in the corridor where it made a turn, and standing there, next to a garbage container, was an older monk, Father Raymond, who was not so much reading as glaring at the latest Catholic Worker, which he held open at arm’s length as if the paper might be toxic. There was an article of Merton’s in it, an; essays about the urgency of taking steps to prevent nuclear war. Father Raymond looked up, saw us coming his way, balled the paper up in his fist, hurled it into the garbage container, and strode away without a word, leaving a trail of smoke.

One evening a day or two after our arrival later when Merton knocked on my door. He was on his way to Vespers and already had on the heavy white woolen choir robe the monks wore during winter months while in church. It was an impressive garment. I reached out to feel it thickness and density. In a flash Merton slid out of it and placed it over my head. I was astonished at how heavy it was! Once again, Merton laughed. The robe met a practical need, he explained, as it was hardly warmer in the church than it was outside. Without it, the monks would freeze to death.

The guest master knew I was at the monastery at Merton’s invitation and thought I might be able to answer a question which puzzled him. “How did Father Louis write all those books?”

I had no idea, no more than he, but I got a glimpse of an answer before my stay was over. A friend at the Catholic Worker had sent a letter to Merton in my care. He urged Merton to leave the monastery and do something “more relevant,” such as join a Catholic Worker community. (Over the years Merton received quite a few letters telling him that he was in the wrong place.) I was a little embarrassed to be delivering such a message.

What is most memorable to me about this particular letter was the experience of watching Merton the writer at work. He had a small office just outside the classroom where he taught the novices. On his desk was a large gray typewriter. He inserted a piece of monastery stationery and wrote a reply that seemed to issue from the typewriter at the speed of light. I had never seen anyone write so quickly. You will often see a stenographer type at such speed when copying a text, but even in a city news room one rarely sees anyone writing at a similar pace.

I wish I had made a copy of his response. I recall Merton admitted that there was much to reform in monasteries and that monastic life was not a vocation to which God called many people, yet he gave an explanation of why he thought the monastic life was nonetheless an authentic Christian vocation and how crucial it was for him to remain faithful to what God had called him to. It was a very solid, carefully reasoned letter, filling one side of a sheet of paper, and was written in just a few minutes.

When I first met Merton, more than two years had passed since the Vatican’s denial of his request to move to another monastery where he might live in greater solitude. By the time of my visit, he was able to spend part of his time in a newly built cinderblock building that stood on the edge of the woods about a mile north of the monastery. It had initially been intended as a conference center where Merton could meet with non-Catholic visitors, but he saw it primarily as his hermitage. Merton had lit the first fire in the fireplace just two months before. There was a small bedroom behind the main room. Merton occasionally had permission to stay overnight, but it would not be until the summer of 1965 that he became a fulltime hermit.

Our visited ended abruptly. A week after our arrival, a telegram came from New York with the news that President Kennedy had announced the resumption of atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, thus another escalation of the Cold War and yet another indication that nuclear war might well occur in the coming years. Anticipating such a decision, I was part of a group of New Yorkers who had planned to take part in an act of civil disobedience, a sit-in at the entrance to the Manhattan office of the Atomic Energy Commission, the federal agency responsible for making and testing nuclear weapons. The abbot provided money for our return to New York by bus. Not many days later, now with a slight stubble of hair, I was in a New York City jail known locally as “The Tombs.”

Merton played a part even in that event. I recall a letter from him, sent care of the Catholic Worker, being hand delivered to me during the hour or two that we sat on the frigid pavement awaiting arrest. (My monastic haircut made me interesting enough to be featured on the front page of one New York newspaper the following morning.)

* * *

photos of the abbey and the book presentation are in this album:

Leven met wijsheid - Dutch translation of Living With Wisdom


Pilgrim to Jerusalem

Pascha at the Resurrection Church in Jerusalem

[an extract from The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life by Jim Forest, published by Orbis Books]

By Jim Forest

The oldest and most important pilgrimage center for Christians is Jerusalem. Despite all its sorrows, Jerusalem remains a city crowded with thin places, chief of which is the Church of the Resurrection, as it is called by Orthodox Christians; or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, as it is known to Christians of other traditions.

Pilgrims often find themselves unready once they arrive, no matter how much preparation they have been made. Standing at the door of the Church of the Resurrection, many pilgrims are in a state of exhaustion and irritation rather than astonishment and exaltation. They have endured the wear and tear of simply arriving only to meet the obstacle of slow-moving lines once inside the church. Many pilgrims find themselves struggling to lay aside all their frayed nerves as they attempt to focus their thoughts on what happened there two millennia ago. After all this hard work, the pilgrim may not be in a receptive state. On top of that, there may be the disappointment of what time has done to such a place. Nothing inside the Church of the Resurrection looks anything like it did twenty centuries ago.

For most pilgrims stepping into that dimly lit, time-worn church, the first stop is the chapel on Golgotha, where Jesus gave up his life on the cross.

The Golgotha chapel, reached by ascending a narrow stone staircase just inside the main entrance, is dominated by a life-sized icon of Christ on the cross in front of which is a marble altar standing on four thin pillars. Dozens of candles burn constantly while numerous ornate silver lamps, large and small, hang from the ceiling. Glass panels on either side of the altar reveal the rough stone surface on which the cross was erected outside the city walls that stood nearby in the days of Roman occupation. (Following the city’s destruction in 70 AD, Jerusalem was rebuilt within new walls, at which time the western wall was moved further west, enclosing Golgotha.)

Cluttered as it is with pre-Reformation religious imagery, this chapel can be a disconcerting place for Protestant visitors. They may also be disconcerted to witness the physical veneration exhibited by pilgrims belonging to the older churches. Yet once inside the chapel, the most undemonstrative visitor tends to be moved by the climate of quiet, heartfelt devotion shown by pilgrims from the more ancient churches. Even a tourist with a head full of religious doubts may feel obliged to speak in a whisper. Visitors who regard the resurrection as nothing more than a pious legend may be moved by the realization that here, on this very spot, a man who had harmed no one — a man of mercy and healing — was stripped, nailed to a cross, and left to die while soldiers threw dice to determine who would take possession of his blood-stained robe. Nearly all visitors kneel in front of the altar, then reach through an opening in the marble floor to touch the rock of Golgotha.

Another significant resonance for this place is the tradition that Adam and Eve were buried at Golgotha, the very place where Christ was later crucified. In any icon of the Byzantine tradition, Adam’s skull appears in a tiny black cave just under the foot of the cross.

Leaving the Golgotha chapel, most pilgrims stop at the place where, according to Christian memory, Christ’s body was laid out before burial. The stone tablet set into the floor, placed there many centuries ago and now as smooth as silk, has received not only millions of kisses but also a river of tears and a nearly constant flow of perfume, the latter poured mainly by women pilgrims. Each day brings many hundreds of mourners who pause at this small area just inside the church’s main entrance. The pilgrims among them know the significance of this rectangle of stone on which no one steps, while tourists are mainly puzzled and perhaps embarrassed by the intense emotion they see displayed by the people kneeling there.

The next stop for pilgrim and tourist alike is the tomb in which Christ rose from the dead. It’s about thirty meters west of the Golgotha chapel and directly beneath the church’s main dome.

When Jesus was crucified, this was the Garden of Golgotha, full of olive trees and flowering plants. Many people were buried here. What was once a small and ordinary burial place — a simple niche chiseled out of a stone embankment, one among many — has become an elaborately carved, chapel-like structure. The surrounding embankment and the adjacent tombs have been completely cut away since the fourth century.

To accommodate pilgrims, Christ’s tomb has been made larger than it was. The structure encasing the tomb — called the Aedicula — now has within it both an outer and inner room, the latter with the narrow shelf, now covered with a thin sheet of marble, on which Christ’s body was laid.

Worn nerves and aching feet notwithstanding, pilgrims always find it a blessing to enter this constricted enclosure. At the very least, the Gospel accounts of the mystery of Christ’ triumph over death become more real. It probably crosses even the atheist visitor’s mind that what occurred here may not be merely an ancient fable. Something happened in this small space that every subsequent generation has had to consider — a mysterious event that has shifted culture and history and even altered the way we look at each other. The place of the resurrection continuously attracts people from near and far, touches both intellect and heart, providing a summons to live the rest of one’s life the freedom that comes from no longer dreading death.

The Church of the Resurrection is more than an enclosure for two sacred places. The pilgrim who has time will discover many unexpected surprises by wandering alone through this maze-like church.

One of my most memorable experiences inside this ancient church occurred during Easter in 1985. How fortunate I was! It’s all but impossible to get inside the Church of the Resurrection on Pascha. One must have an invitation. Providentially, George Hintlian, a leader of Jerusalem’s Armenian Christian community, had given me one. It was a precious gift. Each of the several Christian communities in Jerusalem is allotted only so many. Once the guests are inside the church, the doors are locked and bolted. The area immediately around the tomb is densely crowded.

At a certain moment the Patriarch of Jerusalem, having entered the tomb and been locked inside, lights the “holy fire.” Flame bursts out of the tomb’s small windows. The sealed doors are opened, and the Patriarch comes out bearing two candles which are then used to light the candles everyone holds. Few people hold only one; more often each holds ten or twelve. Each candle will later become a gift to a friend or relative who couldn’t be present. Meanwhile, guests utter cries of joy not unlike those one might hear in a crowded sports stadium at the moment a winning point is scored in a crucial game. As at a sports match, some exultant young men ride on the shoulders of friends. It’s an amazing sight. The space around the tomb quickly becomes hot from the proximity of so many people. So many living flames — so many people packed so tightly! Those who suffer from claustrophobia may find it slightly terrifying.

During the hours when we were locked inside the church, I twice retreated from the crowd to empty areas away from the tomb.

First I went back to Golgotha. How strange it is to be at a place normally crowded with pilgrims and to be the only one there. It is a rare blessing to be entirely alone at the exact spot where Christ gave himself for the life of the world.

On my second walk away from the tumult surrounding the tomb, I went as far as the east end of the Church. Walking down the stairway to St. Helena’s Chapel and from there to another deeper level, I entered the Chapel of the Discovery of the Cross.

While all visitors to the church visit the place of the crucifixion and the tomb in which Christ’s body was laid, far fewer visit this remote corner. Many visitors don’t have time. People often travel long and far to reach Jerusalem and then face a tight schedule once they arrive. As a result, they see relatively little of this huge, somewhat chaotic, ancient building with its many passageways, staircases, chapels and places of veneration. In fact, many Protestant tour groups, suspicious of relics and uncomfortable with devotion to saints, intentionally avoid this subterranean chapel. “The true cross? Found here?” one may hear a visitor say. “Hogwash! All these so-called relics! It was a hoax — just some old wood in the ground passed off as the real thing by swindlers.”

The pilgrim descends via a stone staircase. Step by step the air gets cooler and damper. One goes slowly, perhaps pausing to notice the carefully carved graffiti on the walls left by the pilgrims of earlier eras. Finally the pilgrim reaches an exceptionally quiet, womb-like area beneath the huge church.

There is something remarkable about the special quietness of this deep, damp chapel. Even when there is a steady stream of people coming and going, it seems to absorb and muffle every sound. The unhurried visitor can feel a numinous quality here that may be harder to experience in places where people are waiting in slow-moving lines. In a subterranean enclosure entirely abandoned at Easter, I found myself more aware of the risen Christ than when I stood outside his tomb. An ancient garbage pit has become the thinnest of thin places.

I was also aware of being in the footsteps of St. Helena, whose pilgrim journey in the year 326 inspired the discovery of the cross. Twenty years later, St. Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem, declared, “[The Cross] has been distributed fragment by fragment from this spot and already has nearly filled all the world.”

* * *

Remembering Billy Graham in Russia

Billy Graham on his 96th birthday

By Jim Forest

Billy Graham died yesterday, 99 years old. His passing triggered memories of time spent with him in Russia in 1988, when we were both guests of the Russian Orthodox Church during the celebrations of the 1000-year anniversary of the baptism of Rus’.

“I had many letters from people in the U.S. who were praying in support of the meeting of President Reagan and Secretary Gorbachev in Moscow,” he said in a speech in the Kremlin. “Most people never dreamed a person of such conservative convictions as President Reagan would participate in a breakthrough like this. We have been too isolated from each other.” Graham, a Baptist, paid his respects to Orthodoxy: “The Russian Orthodox Church has much to teach us. One of the great experiences of my life has been getting to know Russian Orthodox Christians. They have deepened my life, made me more aware of the power of the resurrection, and that the crucifixion and resurrection are the central facts of history.”

In 1982 and again in 1988, he repeatedly spoke in favor of universal nuclear disarmament.

At the airport waiting for our flight to Kiev, I asked Graham what had led him to undertake his first trip to the USSR in 1982 despite advice from Vice President Bush not to go. “I had been briefed at the Pentagon about what would happen if there was a nuclear war,” he replied. “I had been to Auschwitz and seen how limitless is our capacity for evil. And I was thinking about Paul saying in his first letter to the Corinthians that he was called to be all things to all people. I realized I had closed myself to the people in the Soviet Union. So I felt I had to say yes to the invitation I received from the Russian Orthodox Church inviting me to take part in a peace conference they were preparing in Moscow.”

Speaking in Kiev, he gave a vintage Graham sermon: “My grandfather never dreamed of the changes that have happened in our world — space travel, color television, travel from continent to continent in a few hours by jet airplane. But some things never change. Interest in religion never changes. The nature of God never changes.” He spoke about God’s love for each person, a love we cannot damage by our sins. Graham recalled a Moscow lady who told him, “I am a great sinner.” He responded, “I too am a great sinner, but we have a great savior.” He recalled Prince Vladimir and his conversion. “He turned away from idols and destroyed them, opening a new path in life not only for himself but for millions of others right down to our own time. God never changes, but you and I must change just as Prince Vladimir changed a thousand years ago.” He ended his sermon saying, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

The congregation replied in one voice, “God save you!”

(extracts from my book Religion in the New Russia published by Crossroad in 1989)

* * *

Two Words I learned from Fr Sergei Ovsiannikov

Fr Sergei Ovsiannikov (photo: Jim Forest)

By Jim Forst

My Russian vocabulary is quite small, I’m sorry to say. While I studied conversational Russian one summer at the University of Novosibirsk, my progress was not impressive. The only language I seem to have any talent for is English. Linguistically, I am a beggar. However, thanks to Fr Sergei Ovsiannikov, there are two Russian words that I have come to know quite well: miloserdiye and svoboda.

I first met Fr Sergei and Aliona in Moscow in June 1988. At the time I was in Russia writing a book about the rapid changes occurring in religious life in the USSR. On that occasion I was in the company of Fr Alexis Voogd, co-founder and the first priest of our young parish of St Nicholas of Myra in Amsterdam, and also father of Aliona and father-in-law of Fr Sergei. To make the best use of available light, I recall sitting bird-like on a hotel window ledge while taking a photo of the recently married couple.

Fr Alexis and I were in Moscow to take part in a very special moment in the history of the Russian Orthodox Church: the thousand-year anniversary of the baptism of Rus’.

One of the events that stands out in my mind occurred in that same hotel room the night of June 20th. The four of us had turned on the television to see what coverage there was of the Church’s millennial celebration. We were not disappointed. Three items stand out in my memory. There was a very skillfully-made documentary film entitled “The Temple” [Xpam] – about Orthodox Church life. There was also a film drama that was inspired by the life of Mother Maria Skobtsova, since recognized as St Maria of Paris. And there was a long news report on the linkage that had just been established between Moscow’s Epiphany Cathedral and a nearby hospital. An agreement had been signed providing the opportunity for church members to offer volunteer service to patients.

The dean of the cathedral, Fr Matvei Stadniouk, was asked by the television interviewer what had led the Church to help in this way. “Our Orthodox people are part of society,” he answered, “and I’m very glad that now the opportunity has come to help people. It is perestroika and democratization at work. The time has come for common feeling. It means seeing what you can do today – tomorrow may be too late. This work is a moral reward for the people. The way people respond already shows that the conscience of our people has not been destroyed. We expect that many in our church will take part. The hospital is our neighbor. We hope to give help every day. After all, to have any success in healing you have to have love.”

“If you have a feeling of mercy in your heart,” said one of the church volunteers at the hospital, “you will do this.” A priest was shown making the sign of the cross over a woman too ill to raise her head. In another room a nurse was standing next to a frail patient. “Do you feel pushed aside by these volunteers coming from the church?” the nurse was asked. “Oh no,” said the nurse, crossing herself, “I am a believer myself!”

Fr Sergei, at that time a deacon, was very excited. “It is the first time,” he said, “that anything like this has happened since Lenin. In the past it has been said that the state provides social services and needs no help in doing it. But it’s far from true. At most hospitals the nursing staff is much too small.”

It was that evening that I first became aware, thanks to Fr Sergei, of the word miloserdiye – in English “works of mercy” or “works of a merciful heart.”

Some months later Fr Sergei sent me a text, co-signed by Aleksander Yablonsky and Georgi Krylov, addressed to Christians in the west. My Russian-speaking co-worker Joe Peacock translated it into English and we sent it far and wide. Here are some extracts:

“We are Christians living in Russia who seek to live in a truly Christian manner. Today for the first time [since Lenin] we are confronted by the question of Christian works of mercy [miloserdiye]….

“There was a time when we Christians were persecuted and believed that we would soon completely disappear. How did we live then? In fact, we [Russian Christians] lived more simply and more freely than we live today. We bore no great responsibility and we did not answer to the activities of the government’s machine of oppression.

“The period of the persecuted Church was in a sense the happiest of her historical experience. To be embroiled in combat with the state’s militant atheism was simpler than serving God and neighbor in the more banal lives we live today. To be a hero is simpler than to be a simple doer, a sower on divine soil. But the period of catacomb Christianity came to an end in Russia….”

But now, the letter continued, we are entering a new period of Russian history.

“We seemed to be like deep sea fish which can live only in the extreme conditions of external pressure and fear, but now we were coming close to the surface, where demands are placed on us for active service to our neighbor. In the west this is often called ‘social service’. In Russian there exists a word that is both precise and rich, though it resists definition – miloserdiye.”

Side by side with that unfamiliar word came another word with special significance for Fr Seregi: svoboda – freedom. Again I quote from his letter:

“All of this we began to understand clearly about two years ago [1986]. We did not expect great political freedoms, and, in any case, politics does not determine Christian freedom – svoboda.”

Let me pause to make a comment. Often freedom is defined politically – freedom of expression, freedom of assembly – but for Fr Sergei, freedom – svoboda – is a word that describes entering into the paschal state. It is embracing a life that takes its shape around the risen Christ. Because I am no longer a prisoner of fear, no longer in the hell of fear, I can make choices that are shaped by mercy and love rather than avoidance of punishment and death, I am free to be fully alive. Fear is longer the mainspring of my life. I am free.

It was the experience of such freedom that, while he was in solitary confinement in a military prison several years earlier, led Fr Sergei to certainty that God exists. This in turn let him to read the Gospels. Here he learned that we can meet Christ in each other, especially in those who are in need, for he said, “I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was naked and you clothed me, I was homeless and you opened your door, I was sick and you cared for me, I was a prisoner and you came to visit me. I tell you solemnly, what you did to the least person, you did to me.”

In his letter, Fr Sergei and his friends wrote in detail about the thousands of people in Leningrad who were in so many ways abandoned by society: widows, orphans, the demented, the insane, the invalids, the chronically ill, the amputees and the prisoners.

The Christian Seminar he belonged to in Leningrad recognized one cannot just read the Gospels and be socially passive. As Fr Sergei wrote, “We realized that our secret prayer services and underground [Christian] seminars were insufficient for following Christ today.”

A Christian life without mercy is not a Christian life. The letter continued:

“It is hard to recall how the question of miloserdiye arose in our small Christian seminar, who first said, ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.’ We are all co-authors with Christ. Like Christ, we must walk in the world in order to share in his pain and suffering. And in Russia to do this one does not have far to go.”

The letter reported that a social breakthrough had now occurred in Russia – it was no longer illegal for Christians as Christians to practice miloserdiye.

“The state’s monopoly on social care has been broken…. The state, living for the utopia of tomorrow – the eternal tomorrow – was in fact unable to be charitable…. The idea of miloserdiye is not an abstract concept but rather a living empathy which arises toward this particular person, at this moment, seen from these eyes which previously had always been averted from the pain. And so, as a beginning, those in our group began to visit hospitals and children’s homes. Six months after our first actual experiences offering such help there arose in our city an official society of miloserdiye…. We participated in the establishment of this society and went to its meetings, while our group still maintained a specifically Christian orientation of compassion. We studied how to be and to live as Christians.”

Let me finish by recalling a visit to our house by Fr Sergei last July during which Nancy and I recorded a conversation with him. Here are some extracts from what he said. The main themes of which were fear and freedom.

He recalled an insight that occurred during his first weeks in prison.

“I was with other people and we had good discussions. But when we walked to work together, we were followed by a soldier with a machine gun. Not so pleasant. It was at this time I realized that we are [whether in prison or not] always being followed by such a soldier, only usually he is invisible. In normal life you don’t see him. But somewhere inside of you he is controlling what you think and what you say, controlling your behavior. You had to become your own guard, your own censor. You must abide by the system.”

I commented that it’s all based on fear.

“Yes,’ Fr Sergei agreed. “In fact the prison was to create fear. At some moment I shared this thought with someone else, another prisoner. He told one of the jail administrators what I had said and this resulted in my being put in solitary confinement. I was there three months. This was hard. You can do nothing. You can’t really sleep – the floor is wet. You cannot read – there are no books. You cannot write – no paper, no pencil. You have four walls and that’s it…. Light comes in but the window is too high to look through it. So all you can do is think. It was in this situation that I realized I didn’t know how to think. I had thought that thinking is a very easy thing. I used to be a physicist so I thought about physics, laws of physics, formulas. But after a few days, perhaps a week, these topics were exhausted. Finished! Then you have to really think, but I didn’t know how. Then something happened. I began to think about freedom. What happened next is very difficult to describe. Maybe I can say there was a kind of light. I heard the words ‘freedom is in God.’ But – a big but – I knew nothing about God! I didn’t believe in God!”

Here Fr Sergei paused to laugh.

“This was a problem – freedom is in God but I didn’t believe in God! But it seems God believed in me. I experienced joy. Only much later did I realize that it is comparable only to one thing, the joy you experience on the night of Pascha. Easter night. Finally I came to realize that the state you enter on Pascha night is intended to be the natural state of the human being. In fact many people experience this joy at the all-night Pascha service, but we lose it again and again, some after a few hours, some after a couple of months.”

We can say that the risen Christ visited Fr Sergei in prison. As he put it, “I was given this joy while in solitary confinement. This kind of joy is indescribable and unbelievable. I lost my fear. That was the most important thing. I realized if they sent me to a labor camp with a long sentence it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because I was free. Of course gradually I came to realize freedom is not just given – you have to take responsibility for it. You have to do something about it every moment of your life. Anyway it was a beginning. I understood that I had to know about God. I had to read the Gospel… They couldn’t take away my freedom. They could do what they liked to my body but I was not afraid anymore.”

“Sometimes,” he added, “people tease me for speaking so often about freedom. It’s such an important topic. It is what we lost in the Garden of Eden. It’s at the center of the story of Adam and Eve. That’s where the problem started. After eating the forbidden fruit they tried to hide from God. God said to Adam, ‘Where are you?’ And Adam responded, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden and I was afraid.’ This is the first time in the Bible we hear about fear. In place of freedom Adam and Eve got fear. Human nature was damaged. All of us are damaged. We are not born in freedom but there is the chance to find the way to freedom. We have to pass through the difficulties of life, but the chance is quite big. We have somehow to be born in freedom. Christ is awaiting our freedom. Christ wants only free people. Of course he accepts many other people too, but he wants free people….

“Christ is so often described as a physician. Perhaps the most important thing he does is heal the heart and open our eyes. One consequence is that we become capable of seeing beauty. One of the favorite sayings used by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom was ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder.’ What does that mean? It doesn’t mean that beauty is something we can manipulate. Yes, you must open your eyes, but not only your eyes. You must enlarge your heart. Otherwise we see beauty only partially or not at all. If the heart is too narrow, the beauty that we see will seem ugly. What you see depends on you – on you and your spiritual condition.”

Each person in this parish has unique memories of Fr Sergei – some special attention he gave us at a difficult time, some words of guidance, some loving gesture, his attentive face, a sermon of his that opened a window, an assurance of God’s forgiveness, a moment of healing laughter. We are rich in such memories.

But to all of us left us these two words: miloserdiye and svoboda, the works of mercy and freedom.

* * *

A paper presented at a gathering of remembrance of Fr Sergei Ovsiannikov at St Nicholaks of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam 17 February 2018.

* * *

About Fr Sergei

On the 6th of January, the eve of old calendar Christmas, Fr Sergei Ovsiannikov passed into eternal life. His death followed a prolonged struggle with pulmonary fibrosis made worse in his final weeks by pneumonia.

He was born in Leningrad on the 14th of August 1952. He is survived by his wife, Aliona [née Voogd], whom he married in 1986, and three children: Aleksey, Aglaya and Evdokia.

Fr Sergei was a spiritual child of Metropolitan Anthony Bloom of Sourozh, who ordained him priest in London in 1990, where he had been assigned in 1989 by the Moscow Patriarchate. In 1986 he was awarded a doctorate after defending a thesis on “Theological Schools in the Early Church”. At the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1989-1990 he did post-doctoral research in Bible sciences and church history at Oak Hill College in London. For thirteen years, beginning in 1991, he was a translation consultant for the United Bible Society, work which brought him to many parts of the former USSR. In the period 1993-1998, he was secretary of the New Testament Slavonic Scholarly Project. Earlier in his life, from 1969 through 1974, he studied physics at the State University in Leningrad. Between university and seminary studies, for two years (1971-1973) he was a conscript in the Soviet army. In that period, he was twice arrested and jailed.

Since 1991 he had served the parish of St Nicholas of Myra in Amsterdam ( and been its rector since 1999. During these years the steadily-expanding parish moved two times, on each occasion to a larger building. The parish has about 300 registered members, with more than 25 nationalities. Services are conducted in Church Slavonic, Russian, Dutch and English.

He was a founding member of the advisory board of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship ( and played a major role in guiding its work.

“A Book About Freedom” by Fr Sergei Ovsiannikov

In December 2017, with the publication in St Petersburg of A Book about Freedom, Fr Sergei became an author. The book is now in its second printing. An English-language translation by Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear is underway. A Dutch translation is anticipated in the near future.

* * *

Fr Sergei Ovsiannikov: a priest who loved the word ‘freedom’

Fr Sergei Ovsiannikov in Alkmaar, July 2017 (photo: Jim Forest)

By Jim Forest

On the 6th of January, the eve of old calendar Christmas, Fr Sergei Ovsiannikov passed into eternal life. His death followed a prolonged struggle with pulmonary fibrosis made worse in his final weeks by pneumonia.

He was born in Leningrad 65 years ago, on the 14th of August 1952. He is survived by his wife, Aliona [née Voogd], whom he married in 1986, and three children: Aleksey, Aglaya and Evdokia.

Fr Sergei was a spiritual child of Metropolitan Anthony Bloom of Sourozh, who ordained him priest in London in 1990, where he had been assigned in 1989 by the Moscow Patriarchate. In 1986 he was awarded a doctorate after defending a thesis on “Theological Schools in the Early Church”. At the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1989-1990 he did post-doctoral research in Bible sciences and church history at Oak Hill College in London. For thirteen years, beginning in 1991, he was a translation consultant for the United Bible Society, work which brought him to many parts of the former USSR. In the period 1993-1998, he was secretary of the New Testament Slavonic Scholarly Project. Earlier in his life, from 1969 through 1974, he studied physics at the State University in Leningrad. Between university and seminary studies, for two years (1971-1973) he was a conscript in the Soviet army. In that period, he was twice arrested and jailed.

Since 1991 he had served the parish of St Nicholas of Myra in Amsterdam ( and been its rector since 1999. During these years the steadily-expanding parish moved two times, on each occasion to a larger building. The parish has about 300 registered members, with more than 25 nationalities. Services are conducted in Church Slavonic, Russian, Dutch and English.

He was a founding member of the advisory board of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship ( and played a major role in guiding its work.

In December 2017, with the publication in St Petersburg of A Book about Freedom, Fr Sergei became an author. The book is now in its second printing. An English-language translation by Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear is underway. A Dutch translation is anticipated in the near future.

“One of the biggest gifts Father Sergei had was giving attention, attention that consisted of love and admiration,” said Fr Sergei’s son, Aleksey, at the funeral January 11. “He was able to give full attention to that very moment he was living in whether he was reading, speaking or praying, giving his attention to every word and letter. Maybe even more importantly, he was able to let the silence sound in between the words.

“I’m an actor myself. Being an actor or being a priest is of course a totally different thing, but during these last few days it struck me how many similarities there are in our calling. As an audience member I notice immediately when an actor on stage is just summing up some words or making a movement because that is his assignment – just empty words and movements. But when an actor is able to re-live a monologue, to connect him or herself with a text or a movement, to exclude everything else that is going on in his head – his worries, his personal life, etcetera. Then you’re able to fully engage, to be fully alive in that very moment. When that happens, it’s a blessing. As an audience member you sense and feel it.

“Amazingly it’s something that I found in the church. When a priest is able to say a prayer not only with his mouth and tongue, but with his heart, when a priest gives a blessing not only with his hand but with the divine love within him, it touches us deeply. Father Sergei was someone who was able to do this. Connecting mind, body and soul with that specific prayer and with that very blessing, he was giving himself into that very moment.

“Father Sergei was a father for all of us, to some a father in the flesh, to others a father in spirit. I can tell you honestly that it is a strange sensation to share a father with so many people. Our phone used to ring almost all day long – people asking for help, for advice, for a last communion, or to baptize their newborn child.

“It’s just now, in these recent days, that I realized why he dedicated so much time of his life to the priesthood. Just look around you. His impact is huge.

“On the last day of his life, Father Sergei said, ‘Children, what do you want me to tell you?'” And I asked him, ‘Tell us your wish’. His answer was, ‘That you will love each other unconditionally’. I wanted you all to know this because he dedicated his life to his family and we are standing here today as that one family.”

In July 2017 my wife Nancy and I recorded a conversation with Fr Sergei, the main themes of which were fear and freedom. Here is the transcript:

Jim Forest: I recall that being in jail provided a turning point in your life…

Fr Sergei: I was jailed twice while I was in the army. The first time I was accused of doing propaganda for the American style of life. In fact it wasn’t true – I knew almost nothing about the American style of life! What could I say about it? They also accused me of disobedience, and that was true. I was disobedient to the authorities. So I was sent to prison, originally just for a few weeks. That was nice. I was with other people and we had good discussions. But when we walked to work together, we were followed by a soldier with a machine gun. Not so pleasant. It was at this time I realized that we are always being followed by such a soldier, only usually he is invisible. In normal life you don’t see him. But somewhere inside of you he is controlling what you think and what you say, controlling your behavior. You had to become your own guard, your own censor. You must abide by the system.

JF: And it’s all based on fear…

Yes. In fact the prison was to create fear. At some moment I shared this thought with someone else, another prisoner. He told one of the jail administrators what I had said and this resulted in my being put in solitary confinement. I was there three months. This was hard. You can do nothing. You can’t really sleep – the floor is wet. You cannot read – there are no books. You cannot write – no paper, no pencil. You have four walls and that’s it.

JF: No window?

Yes. Light comes in but the window is too high to look through it. So all you can do is think. It was in this situation that I realized I didn’t know how to think. I had thought that thinking is a very easy thing. I used to be a physicist so I thought about physics, laws of physics, formulas. But after a few days, perhaps a week, these topics were exhausted. Finished! Then you have to really think, but I didn’t know how. Then something happened. I began to think about freedom. What happened next is very difficult to describe. Maybe I can say there was a kind of light. I heard the words “freedom is in God.” But – a big but – I knew nothing about God! I didn’t believe in God! (laughter) This was a problem – freedom is in God but I didn’t believe in God! But it seems God believed in me. I experienced joy. Only much later did I realize that it is comparable only to one thing, the joy you experience on the night of Pascha. Easter night. Finally I came to realize that the state you enter on Pascha night is intended to be the natural state of the human being. In fact many people experience this joy at the all-night Pascha service, but we lose it again and again, some after a few hours, some after a couple of months.

So I was given this joy while in solitary confinement. This kind of joy is indescribable and unbelievable. I lost my fear. That was the most important thing. I realized if they sent me to a labor camp with a long sentence it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because I was free. Of course gradually I came to realize freedom is not just given – you have to take responsibility for it. You have to do something about it every moment of your life.

Anyway it was a beginning. I understood that I had to know about God. I had to read the Gospel – it was difficult even to find a Bible in those days. But it was the real beginning of my life.

Finding my way into the Church was much more complicated. It was the beginning of the 70s. Not many churches were open and churches were watched closely.

Nancy Forest: When you had that experience in prison, did you sense there were things they couldn’t take away from you anymore?

Certainly. They couldn’t take away my freedom. They could do what they liked to my body but I was not afraid anymore.

JF: What happened then, once you were out of solitary?

Their first plan was to send me to a labor camp, but then they realized there was no basis for convicting me of a crime. So they decided on a completely different course and instead sent me to school for officer training! Six months. Instead of being a good soldier they made me into a bad officer! School was wonderful. I spent many hours in the library and found a book by Solzhenitsyn – One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – and books by other forbidden writers. Lucky for me the librarians had failed to remove such books.

JF: I have noticed in your sermons how often you use the word “svoboda” – freedom.

Yes. Sometimes people tease me for speaking so often about freedom. It’s such an important topic. It is what we lost in the Garden of Eden. It’s at the center of the story of Adam and Eve. That’s where the problem started. After eating the forbidden fruit they tried to hide from God. God said to Adam, “Where are you?” And Adam responded, “I heard the sound of you in the garden and I was afraid.” This is the first time in the Bible we hear about fear. In place of freedom Adam and Eve got fear. Human nature was damaged. All of us are damaged. We are not born in freedom but there is the chance to find the way to freedom. We have to pass through the difficulties of life, but the chance is quite big. We have somehow to be born in freedom. Christ is awaiting our freedom. Christ wants only free people. Of course he accepts many other people too, but he wants free people.

NF: As Christians we can say that without Christ there is no true freedom, yet there is the paradox that Christ only accepts free people. What comes first?

First comes the icon. Each person is an icon of God. In Genesis we read, “Let us create man according to our image.” The Greek word for image is icon. This was a favorite topic of Metropolitan Anthony [Bloom]. Everyone has this icon but the icon is damaged. Life is given to man in order to repair – restore – the icon. With the help of Christ to return to freedom.

JF: Peacemaking is the removal of the smoke-darkened varnish that masks the icon…

This is why Christ is so often described as a physician. Perhaps the most important thing he does is heal the heart and open our eyes. One consequence is that we become capable of seeing beauty. One of the favorite sayings used by Metropolitan Anthony was “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” What does that mean? It doesn’t mean that beauty is something we can manipulate. Yes, you must open your eyes, but not only your eyes. You must enlarge your heart. Otherwise we see beauty only partially or not at all. If the heart is too narrow, the beauty that we see will seem ugly. What you see depends on you – on you and your spiritual condition.

[A Russian translation of this interview is posted at: ]

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A lecture given by Fr Sergei “Peace and Conflict in Scripture and History” is posted at:

Here is an album of photos of Fr Sergei:

To download high-resolution photos from Flickr:

– When viewing an album, double click on any image to see enlarged
– click on the downward-pointing arrow below the photo and to the right
– choose resolution (“original” is the highest)
– save to your computer

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